Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Keep-Your-Mouth-Shut Files #1: Mickey Spillane

I’ve been blogging for more than two years now, and I like doing it. I use this blog to record my thoughts, feelings, and opinions on the mystery genre, and to steer readers in the direction of books they might enjoy. I try to read every book based on its own merits and to judge them all fairly. And I think I’ve done a decent job overall. That being said… I’m only human. I make mistakes. It took me a while to figure out just what a “proper” review was and how different criteria will apply to different subgenres. It took some time for me to accept that the modern crime fiction scene is far more interesting than I at first gave it credit for. And every once in a while, I went out and said something very… er, opinionated.

The funny thing about opinions is that they can change. And it can take you off guard. And boy, I’ve sure thrown around a lot of opinions here on this blog. Sometimes, I think back on what I wrote a year or two ago, and wonder just what on earth I was thinking at the time. And so I’d like to introduce a new feature on this blog, one which I hope will prove interesting: “The-Keep-Your-Mouth-Shut Files”. Although I might change the title if I think of something better, this is the part of the program where I revisit old blog posts and confirm everyone’s impression of me as an opinionated jackass who should just keep his mouth shut sometimes. And I can think of no better an inaugural subject than Mickey Spillane.

If you’re a newcomer to the blog, or if you don’t remember my initial impression of Mickey Spillane, it might be helpful to read my review of I, The Jury from 2011. As my early reviews go, I don’t think it’s that bad. It’s obvious that I despised the book, but I managed to not sound like Patricia Highsmith on a particularly bad day. That being said… my opinion on Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer has drastically changed since reading I, The Jury. It started when I read Lady, Go Die! and earlier this year, when I read One Lonely Night, I was shocked to discover that I ended up loving the book. And with this new perspective, I figured it would be interesting to revisit what I had to say in 2011.

I didn’t beat about the bush. Having expressed my disgust with the book in the first paragraph, I went right to business in the second:

[Mickey] Spillane was once the most vilified writer in America. His hero, Mike Hammer, is as politically incorrect as they come. He refuses to forgive the Japanese for the war, he plays games with his secretary, he sleeps with every woman he comes into contact with on the job, and he threatens or beats up half the suspects he interrogates. And that’s just the first few chapters.

This was the crux of it all, this was my major problem with Mike Hammer. I just didn’t like him as a character at all. And to be honest, I understand that. Not everyone will like Hammer. He’s just that kind of character. He’s tough, he’s brash, he’s violent, he’s sadistic. Certainly not a role model for the children, and it’s not the kind of character that everyone will warm to.

But some of my criticisms were a bit far-reaching. For instance, why would Hammer forgive the Japanese for the war??? He fought in it! It’s explored in much more depth in One Lonely Night, but Hammer got a government-approved taste of death during WWII. They gave him a gun, pointed it at the direction of the Japanese, and ordered him to fire. It was a black-and-white scenario, us vs. them. No soldiers paused on the battlefield to inquire into the morality of their actions. Whoever squeezed the trigger first would get to come back home, assuming Lady Luck was on his side. This black-and-white morality was ingrained into these young men, and then they were shipped back home. Unfortunately, home was not the same black-and-white universe as the battlefield was. There were shades of grey. People didn’t fit neatly into one pre-defined category. The world itself was changing at a rapid pace. And maybe that explains why Hammer was so massively popular. Hammer was the guy who identified the “bad guys” and took actions nobody else would dare to take. When the law itself seemed powerless, Mike Hammer would take up his gun and fight violent men with their own brand of violence.

*******

There are gorgeous blondes to be laid, nasty suspects who go running away at the first sign of trouble to provide red herrings, and plenty of violence. It’s described with relish, focusing on the unpleasant details and lingering on them with zest. It’s not particularly pleasant reading (…).

I don’t think I was too far off on this one. Even though I loved One Lonely Night, the violence still made me cringe. It can easily turn off readers who aren’t prepared for it, and even those who are prepared for it might get a nasty shock or two. Yet the ironic thing is that this isn’t particularly graphic violence. For instance, consider this disturbing flashback in One Lonely Night:

There had been too many of those dusks and dawns; there had been pleasure in all that killing, an obscene pleasure that froze your face in a grin even when you were charged with fear. Like when I cut down that Jap with his own machete and laughed like hell while I made slices of his scrawny body, then went on to do the same thing again because it got to be fun. The little bastards wanted my hide and I gave them a hard time when they tried to take it.

It’s a tough scene to read, and yet Spillane isn’t describing the carnage in minute detail. Mike Hammer isn’t giving readers tips on proper disembowelling techniques, nor does he do something disgusting with the dead man’s remains, nor does he describe the organs exposed by his weapon. In retrospect, it reminds me a lot of a scene in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, where James Bond is brutally tortured with a carpet beater. In that book, the author didn’t use graphic imagery either, and yet the language used makes the scene particularly painful to read. Why is that? I have no idea.

Well, I can’t come up with an explanation that’ll fit both Fleming and Spillane, two authors who have much more in common than you might think. For instance, when I re-read the book earlier this year, I came to the conclusion that the torture scene in Casino Royale is so hard to read because the author described to you the surging pain that Bond feels, allowing your mind to come up with the most grotesque and painful images you could conjure up.

Spillane made me uncomfortable for a different reason, and that’s Mike Hammer’s sadistic, psychopathic love of violence. He doesn’t just do it because it’s part of a nasty job – he does it because he loves it. And it took me a while to understand that. I can’t condone his behaviour, and I question the morality of his approach to justice. (Actually, I find his rationale seriously flawed and disturbing, but in a fascinating way. But I don’t want to turn this into a theological and moral sermon.) But while I was disgusted by I, The Jury, I was fascinated with the introspection of One Lonely Night, where Mike Hammer seriously pondered just how heroic his actions were, and whether he was as bad as the people he fought against. That didn’t stop him from kicking ass when he had to, though. I guess that I find him an interesting character now, but I still wouldn’t consider him a role model. Not by a long shot.

*******

The mystery couldn’t be any more obvious if someone placed a big “I’M GUILTY!” sign over the killer. The moment the character was introduced, I made a mental note to myself: “That’s the killer,” I thought. And I was completely right. Some of the details of the mystery have shreds of cleverness, screaming to be noticed, but they are buried underneath tedium. You can solve this case easily by referring to private eye clichés.

I think I was being a bit unfair to Spillane. The reference I made to “shreds of cleverness” was my roundabout way of saying “there was a clue that I completely missed”. I spotted all the other clues – indeed, I guessed who the killer was the very first time his/her name was mentioned (and I did it without the aid of cover art that spoiled the solution). But this one clue slipped right by unnoticed, and I guess it kind-of bothered me and I didn’t want to say anything nice about Spillane because I hated the book so much.

And I noticed a similar trend in Lady, Go Die! and One Lonely Night. It might be unfair to analyze the plot structure of Lady, Go Die! because it was completed by Spillane’s friend and collaborator, Max Allan Collins. But in all three Spillane books I’ve read thus far, there are honest-to-goodness clues in the narrative. Mickey Spillane, whatever his faults may be, wrote detective stories, where you got all the clues the detective got and could, with the application of logic, come to the correct solution before the detective does. This was a revelation to me. Spillane wasn’t just doing the tough guy act and improvising the plot: actual thought and effort went into these!

Granted, these aren’t the hardest plots in the world to solve. But – and call me crazy if you like – I appreciated the effort. Far too many writers don’t even bother placing clues. A solution is pulled out of nowhere at the end, and it’s fair game as long as it brings things to a close before the idiot heroine gets killed by the evil Bad Guy. And that’s why James Bond pulls a gun that didn’t exist five pages ago out of his derrière… or a genie turns out to be the killer even though you had no reason to believe genies could exist in this universe (I’m not saying which book that was, but regular blog readers can probably make an educated guess).

That being said, my criticisms of I, The Jury’s plot are perfectly valid. It’s just not a very well-constructed plot. There are holes everywhere. It just doesn’t add up nor make sense. Then again, Mickey Spillane – if he is to be believed – put the toll gate of the George Washington Bridge on the wrong side in order to collect on a $1000 bet. Thinking back on it now, maybe that’s the point of an ironic comment Mike Hammer makes about a mystery movie he sees, describing it as “a fantastic murder mystery that had more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese.” Maybe Mickey Spillane is pulling a joke on his readers. Or maybe I’m reading too deeply into it. Either way, I’m not the first person to observe that the comment ironically serves as a perfect summary of the book in which it appears.

*******

And then there’s Mickey Spillane’s attitude towards women. In the words of Captain Hastings: “Good Lord!” Is it ever awful. (…) Basically, to be a woman in this book, you have to either take your clothes off for Mike Hammer or intimate that you are willing to do so at the drop of a hat. Or you’re a prostitute. Take your choice, ladies!

I think that somewhere in the distance, I can hear 2011-me’s jaw dropping to the floor in astonishment at what I’m about to say. To be honest, it’s a bit of a surprise to me too. Here’s where I went wrong: Mickey Spillane doesn’t hate women. In fact, he’s surprisingly good to women. Women are often brave and independent. Mike’s secretary Velda has a P.I. license of her own and she can be just as tough as Mike Hammer on occasion. In I, the Jury, Mike’s romantic interest, Charlotte Manning, is a highly successful and respected psychiatrist. She’s young and beautiful (and, as Mike finds out, a real blonde), but these aspects are in addition to the character. Her accomplishments as a psychiatrist aren’t trivialized and tossed aside. There’s a similar strong female in One Lonely Night, and Velda fills the role in Lady, Go Die!

In some respects, Spillane’s women are in the same boat as Ian Fleming’s “Bond girls”. You can’t just take one of the weaker ones – say, Vivienne Michel from The Spy Who Loved Me — and claim she is representative of them all. Tiffany Case, in Diamonds are Forever, is one of the most poignant characters Ian Fleming ever wrote about, male or female, and anyone who seriously thinks the Bond girls are just there for sex seriously needs to read that book. The problem is, I just didn’t catch onto this aspect of Spillane’s female characters, and gave him a really unfair rap for it. It’s entirely my fault.

*******

Overall, I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Mickey Spillane out there, but I find myself fascinated by the man nevertheless. His books are far more interesting than I gave them credit for in 2011. Whether or not you like Mike Hammer, you have to admit that Spillane radically changed American culture with his novels. And he comes across as a decent, likable guy in his many interviews (which can be viewed online thanks to the magic of YouTube).

And whether or not you agree with Hammer’s worldview or morals, occasionally Spillane will paint a truly vivid picture. Spillane’s prose can be quite beautiful and poetic, and I think it’s worth reading for this alone. For instance, consider the opening paragraph of One Lonely Night:

Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this . The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.

Or the opening paragraph of The Killing Man:

Some days hang over Manhattan like a huge pair of unseen pincers, slowly squeezing the city until you can hardly breathe. A low growl of thunder echoed up the cavern of Fifth Avenue and I looked up to where the sky started at the seventy-first floor of the Empire State Building. I could smell the rain. It was the kind that hung above the orderly piles of concrete until it was soaked with dust and debris and when it came down it wasn't rain at all but the sweat of the city.

I guess this is what it comes down to: I can understand why people might have a negative reaction to Mickey Spillane. I had one myself. But I think Spillane should be given a fair chance. He’s an author who did a lot to change popular culture, and deserves respect for that achievement alone. He can write beautifully. His plots show effort and actual thought in their construction. Approach Spillane’s work with an open mind, and he just might surprise you.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting read. I posted some of the info on Mike hammer in my blog earlier this month. http://suspenseandmystery.blogspot.com/2013/11/mike-hammer-created-by-mickey-spillane.html

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  2. I love this blog. I never read any of Spillane's books but I knew a man who sat up nights reading them. He was a war veteran, from North Africa and up through Italy, the whole bloody nine yards. As far as I know, Spillane's books are the only books he ever read. Now I'm thinking it's time I read one. Stay tuned ....

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Pat! Please be sure to let us know what you think when you give Spillane a try.

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  3. "Fleming and Spillane, two authors who have much more in common than you might think."

    That's something that struck me quite forcibly as well. And they're both writers who are unfairly maligned these days. The big point that people miss about both writers is that they took their writing seriously. They weren't setting out to write sensationalistic trash. They don't always succeed entirely in their aims but they do succeed more often than they're usually given credit for.

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    1. It reminds me of back when I reviewed MOONRAKER. I'd listened to a recording read by Bill Nighy. After the audiobook itself concluded, there was a fascinating interview with Nighy where he said:

      It was a surprise to me how well-written it was. I don’t know why; I suppose because I made a familiar, lazy assumption that if it were a genre novel, broadly speaking, that it might not be of the first rank in terms of writing. I was mistaken. It’s an assumption one should never make.

      I think it's something that could easily apply to Spillane as well. And of course, some scenes in Fleming - like the death scene with the shark in LIVE AND LET DIE - could have come right out of Spillane.

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  4. You are a braver man than I Patrick - don't think I would care to start going back in my old 'files' for fear of what i would find ... What if they were better and I had not only leanred nothing but got progressively worse?

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