So, the tough-guy mystery writer Micky Spillane has died, passing away at age eighty-eight in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Back in 2001, the New American Library reissued a set of his Mike Hammer books, and I wrote at the time:
Your first impulse will be to like Mickey Spillane. Here's a guy who was loathed by the 1950s literary establishment. He hated communism, organized crime, and district attorneys. His 1949 I, the Jury sold five million copies in its first paperback editionand ended with detective Mike Hammer shooting the love of his life because she had killed his partner. "'How c-could you?' she gasped. I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in. 'It was easy,' I said."
Long out of printmissing even from the Library of America's volumes canonizing pulp noirSpillane's first six Mike Hammer novels have been reissued in one last effort to claim for him the fame that has enhaloed Hammett and Chandler.
It was worth a shot. One Lonely Night and Kiss Me, Deadly are more thrillers than mysteries, but they're fast-moving, hard-boiled, andunlike most noirmake moral distinctions between good guys and bad guys. The famous prose isn't as clean as its parodies; to write low-class lines is a high-class art, and Spillane is the kind of writer who says "utilize" when he means "use." But there are enough lines like "The guy was dead as hell" to keep you going.
The only objectionable parts are the sex and violence. Unfortunately, sex and violence are the novels. It's not that Hammer lives in a world in which beautiful women tear off their blouses and moan "Make me" fifteen minutes after meeting him. Who could object to that? The problem is that they have to punch him in the jaw and get punched back before tearing off their blouses. You don't mind so much that his solution to male Communists is to cut them into pieces with a Tommy gun. But your skin starts to crawl when his solution to a female Communist is to rip off her dress and beat her, drooling over the sight of "a naked woman and a leather belt." (It's unnecessary effort. She had already been converted to democratic capitalism by her first encounter with Hammeron a bear-skin rug, no less.) And I'd just as soon not know exactly what is going on with the transvestite Juno, the homme fatale of Vengeance Is Mine.
It's finally just too creepy and silly to be worth the effort. Sure, Spillane was hated by Commies, eggheads, and all the rest of the self-satisfied prigs of the 1950s. But even that isn't enough to make him a good read.
In addition to which:
Shakespeare's plays didn't contain cryptic Catholic messages, the Bible is not a numeric code, and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is full of errors. But that doesn't stop such tales from being written and, in many cases, well received. Why are people attracted to and excited by this genre of fiction? Alan Jacobs takes up this question in "The Code Breakers," inside the August/September version of First Things. Don't keep First Things a secret. Tell your friend, or better yet, send him or her a gift subscription.