Thursday, October 10, 2013

Too Tough To Die

It’s late at night, the rain is pouring down hard, and Mike Hammer is walking on a bridge. He’s feeling depressed, humiliated, and completely alone. Just that day, Hammer was berated in court by a judge, whose speech began calmly and turned into a vicious, hateful speech. The judge accused Hammer of being a violent, unrepentant psychopath who had gotten a taste of death during the war and who couldn’t get enough of it now. He condemned Hammer as evil incarnate, the worst kind of criminal scum, and he prophesied that a rain of purity would wash him into the sewer with the rest of the scum. Hammer left the court humiliated, his soul laid bare and dissected for all to see, feeling cut off from society and bitter about it.

That’s when he sees the girl. She’s running from something, terrified. She falls into Mike’s arms and begs for his help. That’s when a fat man comes out from the shadows, a gun in his pocket pointed at Hammer. The fat man grins and prepares to shoot them both down, but Hammer’s gun is quick: he shoots the fat man in the face with a .45. But the girl is terrified. She thinks Hammer is “one of them”, and in desperation, she throws herself off the bridge. Hammer is left stunned, with only the corpse of the fat man for company. And that’s how Mickey Spillane’s novel One Lonely Night kicks off.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that this isn’t my first time reading a Mike Hammer novel. Over two years ago, I made the tough-guy-PI’s acquaintance in I, The Jury. It was Mickey Spillane’s first novel and left me absolutely disgusted. The “hero” was anything but: he was psychotic, he was sadistic, he was vicious. He loved inflicting violence and described it using fetishistic imagery. Sure, he was lean, mean, and tough, but by gum was it ever uncomfortable to read! I slammed the book as unreadable and I left it at that. A year later, I read Lady, Go Die!, a direct sequel to I, The Jury, left unfinished by Spillane and completed by Max Allan Collins. To my surprise, I really enjoyed the book, but I still couldn’t warm up to the character of Mike Hammer.

So why the return to Mike Hammer? Call it morbid curiosity. The more I read about Spillane and Mike Hammer, the more interested I was. For instance,  I found a few interesting interviews with Spillane online, and I actually agreed with some of the stuff he said – unreservedly in some cases. For instance, in one interview he says that nobody reads a book to get to the middle – they want to get to the end, and an author should save his biggest fireworks for the ending. I found myself nodding in agreement. I finally decided to give Hammer another shot, and settled on One Lonely Night.

Why am I going through all this personal history? Well, I just want to make it clear what I thought of Mike Hammer coming into this book. Because believe it or not, I absolutely loved One Lonely Night. In fact, the opening section of the book left me positively floored. I couldn’t understand it before when people referred to Spillane a “poet”, but when I read that first chapter, I finally got it.

The first chapter is dark; and I don’t mean the synthetic darkness that comes a dime a dozen in today’s “gritty” reboots/remakes. This plunges you right to the depths of despair, and I get the feeling that this novel was Mickey Spillane’s answer to his critics. Believe it or not, Spillane was once the most vilified writer in America, universally hated by critics. (Ian Fleming suffered a similar fate in his home country.) They called Mike Hammer a sadist, a misogynist, a psychopath with a gun, and that’s basically what he was. These criticisms are embodied in the character of the Judge who berates Hammer at the start of the novel. The Judge hates Hammer and doesn’t bother to hide his hatred: Hammer is a threat to all decent, civilised society, and the Judge doesn’t understand why he’s still alive. For some reason, this really hits home for Hammer, and he walks along the bridge at night, seriously considering suicide when a girl comes to him for help. Briefly he feels like a hero again, like a big-shot, but when he shoots the fat man, the girl’s reaction is unexpected. She becomes terrified of him and commits suicide; for all intents and purposes, he has murdered her as well. You can imagine just what it does for Hammer’s confidence, and he spends the entire book questioning his purpose in life. Maybe I am a psycho, he thinks. Maybe the Judge was right.

The Judge becomes a spectre who resurfaces throughout the novel to berate Hammer all over again, and these segments make for some brilliant reading. If for no other reason, One Lonely Night should be read for the unique insight into Mike Hammer’s character. Yes, this is the same Mike Hammer: he still loves to dole out violence, and even though it’s “tame” by modern standards, the joy with which the violence is described still makes me cringe. But that’s the point: in one scene at the end of the novel, Hammer goes on a bloody murder spree, all with a giant grin on his face which he can’t get rid of. And this grin, this inner joy Hammer feels, is considered and analyzed in detail throughout the book.

And yet Mickey Spillane managed to write a fast-paced book with plenty of plot and plenty of action. The girl’s suicide is just the first event: Hammer soon discovers that there is a link with the Communist party, and he infiltrates it. And that’s not all: a local politician is implicated in a recent murder which also has ties to the Communist party. And that’s all I really dare say about the plot, but believe me, there is much more. To my surprise, it was even fairly-clued, but to be honest, the seasoned mystery reader will have no trouble solving the case. One event in particular is so suspicious that I instantly questioned it and came to the right conclusion (revealed in the final chapter).

Much of the book is a vicious attack on Communism, and that’s only to be expected. As someone who was born in 1993, the Cold War is an event which I have glimpsed only through the eyes of history. One Lonely Night takes the Communist threat very seriously, though, and Hammer holds particular hatred for the Communists. While reading these parts of the book, I sort-of understood just why Mike Hammer was so big in a post-WWII world. People were disillusioned by the war; the world was no longer black-and-white and the law itself seemed useless, its hands tied down. This feeling is embodied in a scene where some Soviets hand a suitcase full of cash to accused traitors in the middle of a courtroom, in front of everyone there, as though the law could do nothing about it.

What conclusion does Hammer come to about his purpose in life? Well, if you want to find out, read the book. Be warned: it’s bloody, violent, and supremely dark. Mike Hammer goes to the pits of despair with nobody to keep him company, and he takes it out on those damned Communists. Some of the politics might be very out-of-date now, and when it comes to women, they’re just there for the sex. But damn it, there’s a real sense of conviction to this book. Spillane seems to have something he wants to say, an answer he wants to deliver to his critics. And honestly, the result left me stunned. I didn’t just “appreciate” One Lonely Night. I didn’t just consider this an intriguing or charming experiment. I friggin’ loved it. And to be honest, it's still a bit of a surprise that I did. (I have no idea what 2011 me would say if he could see me writing this now…)

9 comments:

  1. Are you at all familiar with Carroll John Daly's writing and the character Race Williams? These were the inspiration for Spillane according to Spillane himself. Race was a character who would shoot you at the drop of a hat, and even drop the hat himself but like Mike Hammer he was violent on behalf of those who would otherwise have been victimised by people who were far worse than the hero. While not nearly as sophisticated a writer as Spillane I think both understood the necessity of having their heroes be more than simply good at violence and both actually do find it necessary to have those heroes actually do some soul searching in order to justify their actions to the reader unlike most hard boiled writers.

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    1. Ron, I'm familiar with Carroll John Daly mainly through a historical perspective, i.e. I've probably read some of the stories but can't remember them, but I know *who* he was and what he contributed to the genre.

      I think what it comes down to is that when I read I, THE JURY, I was disgusted by Hammer's "heroism". It was blindly assumed that Hammer was the good guy and the morality of his actions was never really called in question from what I remember. His sadistic enjoyment of his violence also turned me off, and his vicious final words to the killer just left me shocked that a guy like this could keep his P.I. license.

      In this novel, Hammer is way more complicated and wonders whether he's really the bad guy. He spends a lot of time wondering and trying to justify his actions, and I think he does a half-decent job in this novel. Which didn't make the violent scenes any easier to read. Even when he defaces the corpse in the first chapter he seems to be having a smashing time. But I read on with a horrid sort of fascination this time; whatever his faults as a writer, I must admit that Mickey Spillane has a real sort of conviction beneath it all.

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  2. Really enjoyed your review Patrick and I think this is one of the titles that Max Allan Collins points to when Spillane is treated harshly by critics, though clearly what we have here is a case of having your cake and eating it - but it sounds like he gets away with it despite all the Commie bashing, mysogyny and macho posturing - which reflects what even Julian Symons had to admit, that Spillane was a very able writer even if you dodn't share his world view - no wonder Ayn Rand was such a fan!

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    1. Funny you should mention Collins. When I reviewed TRUE DETECTIVE, Collins himself showed up and picked up on my anti-Hammer stance, which is when he asked me not to give up on Hammer. This was around the time I read CITY OF GLASS, so looking for the anti-Auster, I decided to take Collins up on his challenge by reading LADY, GO DIE! which I surprisingly enjoyed. When I decided to go back to Spillane, I picked this book because it was one of the books Collins mentioned in his comment, and Hammer-vs.-the-Commies did sound intriguing.

      The most powerful bits of this book are the introspective bits, and for that we have critics to thank for. Their hatred of Mike Hammer was positively visceral, and I think it got to Spillane because the Judge's condemnations seem to carry echos of critics condemning Spillane and Hammer for their sadism and violence. It really was fascinating to see, and it made scenes like the brutal Commie-carnage near the end far more *important*.

      Ian Fleming was similarly hated by English critics. Reading reviews from those days, I was surprised to read that Fleming was representative of everything wrong with society and that he was dragging it to the gutter. Substitute Mike Hammer for James Bond and Spillane for Fleming, and you might as well have gotten American critics' reactions to Spillane!

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  3. Very nice post, and frankly gratifying to me. Hammer's introspection and dealing with his guilt is present in all of the post-I, THE JURY books of the '50s. It's key to understanding the first book and those that follow that Hammer really did love the woman he executes, but he had made a promise to his murdered army buddy and the combat experience (and the male bonding within it) took precedence. This is part of why WW 2 vets took so strongly to Hammer.

    He is haunted by the death of the I, THE JURY killer in VENGEANCE IS MINE! particularly, but even as late as THE GIRL HUNTERS, which finds him at the end of a seven-year drunk, due to blaming himself for another woman's death. To me, ONE LONELY NIGHT is the masterpiece. Would love to see you take on the other Spillane/Collins collaborations as well.

    One thing: keep in mind there is an element of black humor in all of Spillane -- he knows very well he's going over the top. That doesn't take away from the darkness -- in fact, it adds to it.

    Fleming was largely introduced in America by Spillane's paperback reprint publisher who were struggling for a replacement during Spillane's decade-long writing hiatus. Even in England reviewers and cover blurbs compared him to Spillane. Oddly, Raymond Chandler, who rather jealously hated Spillane, was a big Fleming booster.

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    1. Mr. Collins, thanks for stopping by and for the nice words about this article. By a curious coincidence, I'm also writing a review of your third Nate Heller novel, THE MILLION DOLLAR WOUND, and the wartime scenes in that book are extremely vivid: it helps me understand just what you mean about the combat experience taking precedence for Hammer over his love for the killer.

      I do find it interesting that in this book, Hammer refers to a bunch of people he has killed in the past. The victims I remember most vividly are the two Japanese soldiers he killed during combat with their own machetes, a truly gruesome and disturbing scene. And while Hammer-in-the-past was cackling ferociously as he did it, Hammer-in-this-book wonders whether that was the right thing to do after all. I can't entirely blame him in this case: his country gave him a gun, told him that we're the good guys and they're the bad guys, and now shoot. Unfortunately, this black-and-white morality that was ingrained in him during the war doesn't really work in the civilian post-war life, and that's what makes Hammer such an outcast (as personified by the Judge).

      Regarding the black humour, during the massive Commie-Carnage at the end, when Hammer kills the MVD guy, he shoots the guy's arm off with his gun first, allowing him to see it drop beside him before finishing him off. The violence is horrid, but it's so exaggerated and stylized as well. I was reminded of SIN CITY (the film) and the Marv storyline, where the kills were also over-the-top and exaggerated like that. It's darkly humourous in both cases, but as you point out it doesn't alleviate the darkness.

      Chandler and Fleming were, apparently, rather good friends. Chandler liked CASINO ROYALE quite a bit, and I can see that: it's a rather subdued book -- we haven't gotten to the over-the-top evil-villain-board-meeting deaths of THUNDERBALL yet, and Chandler didn't live long enough to see it -- and Bond's view of the world is a disillusioned one, kind of like Marlowe's. Fleming's DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is partly set in Las Vegas, and Fleming does a really good job portraying the city and the criminal life there. It seemed rather Chandler-esque when I re-read it earlier this year. So I can sort-of understand why Chandler would enjoy Ian Fleming. It's the first time I heard that Chandler hated Spillane, but that frankly doesn't surprise me much -- Chandler was a difficult man to please. He didn't even like Ross Macdonald, which frankly baffles me.

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  4. This is one my favorite Spillane books, too. Some great descriptive writing along with everything else.

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    1. Mr. Crider, thanks for visiting the blog. Apparently, the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler is handing out coincidences like Halloween candy today: I just finished reading your piece in 1001 MIDNIGHTS on this book. I have to agree that the descriptive writing in this book is just great, especially the vivid opening chapter which instantly sucked me in. My initial reaction was "Holy cr@p, what an opening!" It's a relentlessly dark way to open the story, and that oppressive feeling of loneliness is really nicely conveyed too. As someone who came into this story not sure whether I thought of Spillane as a good writer or not, it certainly gave me a compelling case in his favour.

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  5. Here is a comment from Sam Karnick, who was unable to post it for some reason:

    Patrick, I, the Jury is an excellent exemplar of my observation that depiction does not necessarily imply advocacy. The book can be read in a straightforward way as being as simple as Hammer's actions and stated opinions--or it can, as Max Collins notes, be read as the work of a sophisticated writer who knows more than his characters reveal on first glance, and as the story of a man significantly more complex and insightful than he initially seems. This is what makes the first book justifiable in retrospect for those open-minded enough to read later entries in the series, if they didn't get the point initially.

    Understanding the pervasiveness of Communist sympathy in the United States in the years when Spillane wrote, and the evident danger to the U.S. rule of law and American ways of life, is central to a full understanding of Hammer's dilemma: there are people who pose so great a danger to society, and are so unshakably intent on their goals (especially true of the Communists), that their continued existence is a dire threat to the social order that sustains normal American life (with all its shortcoming which Spillane himself admits implicitly in the very actions he depicts by all parties in his narratives). This is a sophisticated and eminently justifiable point of view.

    The observation about Race Williams is also apposite: the private detective begins with Williams, as an urban version of the cowboy, with the goal being not the establishment of law and order but its reestablishment after corruption by a variety of self-interested groups and social forces.

    I will certainly read One Lonely Night at the first opportunity.

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