Mickey Spillane, RIP

Wow, another icon gone from planet Earth: hard-boiled mystery author Mickey Spillane, creator of two-fisted private eye Mike Hammer, died Monday, at the age of 88. You can read his obituary in the Los Angeles Times here.

When it comes to private eye fiction, Spillane probably ranks third in the great pantheon, behind Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler (although novelist Kinglsye Amis, in the essay “My Favorite Slueths, published in Playboy back in the 1960s ranked him first). Spillane was not as innovative as Hammett, nor was he a sophisticated stylist like Chandler. What Spillane had going for him was the crude, gut-level power of his prose, which perfectly matched the crude methods of his (frankly) vulgar, violent hero.

This potent combination made his debut novel I, THE JURY an instant classic when it was published in 1946. Panned by critics, the paperback original went on to become a best seller, leading to a string of subsequent Mike Hammer novels.

Unfortunately, once you’ve read one Spillane novel, you’ve pretty much read them all; the sequels to I, THE JURY follow the same formula: private eye Mike Hammer never seems to get a paying client; he’s almost always out to avenge the death of some friend on his own time; Pat, Mike’s friend on the police force, means well but can’t do much of anything, his hands tied by bueracratic red tape; so Hammer takes the law into his own hands and shoots and/or beats up all the bad guys.

What keeps this formula interesting is the character of Hammer, a brutal man who justifies his brutality by putting it in the service of defending the innocent. He feels guilty from time to time, but in the end he knows he’s justified. (Referring to the criminal scum he pursues, he likes to say, “I play it their way, only worse.”)

This portrait of a loner hero, working outside the law, seems to have been a big influence on graphic novelist Frank Miller. The film version of SIN CITY certainly reeks of Spillane’s ethos. One can also see traces of Hammer in subsequent characters like Clint Eastwood’s DIRTY HARRY.

Several of Spillane’s novels were translated to film, including THE GIRL HUNTERS, in which Spillane himself starred as Hammer. But easily the most important film adaptation was KISS ME DEADLY, the 1955 classic directed by Robert Aldrich. This brilliant piece of film noir seemed designed to undermine the Hammer character; taking a more sophisticated view (as opposed to Spillane’s own comic book perspective), Aldrich portrays Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) as what he would probably be in real life, a stupid thug out to make a buck. The movie is also notable for the way its mystery plot takes a turn into science-fiction toward the end, when a mysterious nuclear device is unleashed, leading to a climax that looks like something out of the old 1960s OUTER LIMITS television show.

Spillane may not have been a very sophisticated writer, but he was very good at what he did. If you have never read one of his books, you should pick up I, THE JURY or perhaps KISS ME, DEADLY (any of the others will probably do, but those two do stand out slightly from the rest). In any case, despite critical calumny, his work was wildly successful and widely influential. It’s sad to see him go, but I’m sure Mike Hammer will live on…