Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Mickey Spillane, Mike Hammer, and the Private Eye on Screen and on the Page
Mickey Spillane grabbed his position in the pop culture pantheon much like his iconic creation, private eye Mike Hammer, made his way through a case: through a sort of literary brute force, blasting away with heavy doses of graphic violence, steamy sex, and a style which reviewers often considered the prose version of a blunt object.
As a mystery writer, Spillane wasn’t as clever as Evan Hunter, nor as introspective as late career Ross MacDonald, nor did he have the insider’s street savvy of George V. Higgins, or the prose command of Raymond Chandler. Read today, some of his stuff seems so familiar and stale and excessive it borders on camp. But, whatever one’s qualitative judgment on Spillane and his canon, there’s no doubt his impact on the mystery genre – and the private eye tale in particular – was both massive and indelible, reaching beyond the printed page to reshape genre iconography on both the big and little screen as well.
When Dirty Harry Callahan tells an armed robber that blocking the hood’s escape are “Smith and Wesson…and me,” in Sudden Impact (1983), that’s an echo of Mike Hammer. Die Hard’s (1988)John McClane lets Hans Gruber fall from the top of an L.A. office building, Taken’s (2008)retired CIA agent Bryan Mills icily tells the flesh peddlers who’ve kidnapped his daughter, “I will find you,” any Arnold Schwarzenegger character drops a bon mot while he’s also dropping the kibosh on a villain, you’re seeing Mike Hammer’s DNA show up in the paternity tests.
Spillane’s name may not have the resonance or commercial punch it once did, and the elements which gave his writing such shock and awe in their time have long since been mainstreamed to the point of banality, but he’s earned some consideration from today’s genre gourmets. With Titan Books having recently released (May 8 in the U.S.; May 25 international release) a previously unpublished Mike Hammer novel, Lady, Go Die! – completed by Spillane collaborator and Road to Perdition author Max Allan Collins – it seems appropriate to give Spillane and his influence on pop culture an overdue look.
It was his bartender father who dubbed Frank Morrison Spillane “Mickey.” He was born in Brooklyn in 1918, and raised across the Hudson in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a blue collar port town that’s still rough around the edges. He started playing around with writing while in high school, finally making his professional bones in the 1940s writing for comic books.
The story goes that he turned to novel-writing to pay for a house he and his then wife wanted to buy in upstate New York. Supposedly, Spillane banged out his first novel, I, the Jury, in just 19 days. E.P. Dutton published Jury in hardcover in 1947 to less than impressive numbers, but when Signet released it in paperback, sales exploded.
At the time, paperbacks were an also-ran, hardcover’s poor relation, a few extra pennies tacked on to the earnings of the “real” i.e. hardcover release. I, the Jury and its six and a half million copies changed all that. Afterward, hardcovers were for having something that looked nice on the home library’s bookshelves; paperbacks were for the blue collars and straphangers and working stiffs. It’s what Joe Everyman read when there was something Joe Everyman wanted to read…and Joe Everyman wanted to read Spillane.
Spillane pumped out six more Mike Hammer novels in the next five years and every one of them went bestseller. By the early 1960s, he was touted as the best-selling author of the 20th Century.
He would go on to write other characters, other series like the one featuring counterspy Tiger Mann, he’d even write a couple of novels for kids, eventually running up an astounding total of 225 million copies of his books sold around the world (and counting!). But his signature creation was and remains the Mike Hammer novels. Encapsulated, Mike Hammer may sound a bit old hat, but when the books first hit the stands 65 years ago, they had the ministers screaming hellfire in the pulpits and senators declaring them an affront to public decency.
From the time Edgar Allan Poe simultaneously fathered the mystery story and the private eye yarn with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841 — featuring enigma lover C. Auguste Dupin — the private eye game in literature was one for gentlemen (and occasionally ladies).
Poe’s brilliant, analytical, observant Dupin – whom he would bring back for two more short stories – provided a virtual blueprint for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more well-known and tremendously popular “consulting detective,” Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, in turn, provided the model which would dominate literary detective-hood up until – and well into — the 1930s.
In the multitude of detective novel series which followed Doyle’s creation in the first decades of the 20th Century, the central characters may have had their own peculiarities – Earl Derr Biggers’ aphorism-spouting Charlie Chan; Leslie Charteris’ globe-trotting Simon Templar aka The Saint; Frederic Dannay’s and Manfred B. Lee’s novelist/amateur sleuth Ellery Queen; Louis Joseph Vance’s debonair ex-jewel thief Michael Lanyard aka The Lone Wolf; Willard Huntington Wright’s aristocratic Philo Vance; John P. Marquand’s soft-spoken and inscrutable Mr. Moto; Agatha Christie’s snooty Hercule Poirot and her fortitudinous spinster Miss Marple – but the essence of the detective novel, no matter the set of hands at the keyboard, didn’t change all that much. For the most part, like Dupin and Holmes, the PI was – along with being intelligent, insightful, and preternaturally inductive/deductive – sophisticated, cultured, refined, well-traveled, and well-versed in, evidently, damned near everything. They could tell how long a corpse had been a corpse and also knew what wine to order with fish. The cops often bumbling and bumping around the periphery of a case were always a step or ten behind them, often resented the intrusion of these amateurs, and, perhaps worse, couldn’t tell a shrimp fork from a nose picker.
Far be it for such hoity-toities to investigate anything as tawdry as a street level murder or any equally pedestrian crime. Elaborate conspiracies, elaborate murder schemes, elaborate thefts of exotic objets d’arte, elaborate frauds, frames, and financial finagling…that was more their speed. And while bodies might turn up with impressive regularity, actual acts of violence occurred discreetly out of sight. In fact, as a rule, there was a general emotional coolness to all of these series. However appalling the igniting crime might be, there wasn’t more than a passing expression of anguish or moral outrage or much of any kind of real feeling. There’d be some tsk-tsking about some poor soul’s premature demise, but the thrust – and the appeal – of these mysteries was in watching a charming, quirky central character puzzle out a puzzle (“And that’s where you made your first mistake, my friend!”).
The mysteries were always solved with a nice, moral tidiness. Although there were exceptions to the rule, the bad guys were usually truly bad (“Of course I killed him! And I’m glad!”), the victims often undeserving (“She didn’t have an enemy in the world!”), the good guy (or gal) clearly in the right (“There’s no excuse for murder!”). As hapless and useless as the duly appointed police authorities were in the world of these gifted amateurs, Holmes & Co. still believed in the rule of law; in the end, they fed the guilty party to the cops and into the machinery of due process (“Here’s your murderer, Inspector!”).
The movies latched easily onto these mystery franchises, particularly in the 1930s with the industry’s introduction of the double bill. The exposition-heavy/action-lite nature of most literary mystery series was a perfect fit for Hollywood’s bottom-of-the-bill B features. Most of these movies were comprised, for the most part, of a series of Q & As between the colorful hero/heroine and an often equally colorful gallery of suspects, each, at one time or another, looking guilty as hell to keep up the mystery.
Shot on a studio’s back lot with salaried second-tier performers, these chatty, fast-paced Bs could be pumped out on tight budget in just four weeks (or less). The movie versions of these series more resembled today’s TV series rather than feature films, with the format of a particular series changing little from one installment to the next, one case usually indistinguishable from another, and with the series primarily resting on the charm of the leading character (“Holmes, you’re amazing!”) and the chemistry of the recurring characters (“Elementary, my dear Watson.”).
The gold standard of the pre-war movie PIs has to be Nick Charles – actually Nick and Nora Charles — introduced in Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel, The Thin Man. Nick Charles was a professional private eye just as at home with knuckle-dragging tough guys as he was with what was then referred to as the horsey set. Nora was his bubbly, wealthy wife whose biggest kick was helping Nick with a case. They lived a swanky, uptown life, swigged booze like they were afraid Prohibition was coming back, and traded one-liners back and forth like a couple of vaudeville pros.
Hammett’s Nick and Nora were the perfect confection for Depression-era audiences looking for a little light fun amidst all the economic gloom. Top-of-the-heap movie studio MGM thought so, too, and that same year put out a movie version with ideally matched William Powell and Myrna Loy as the fizzy, high-living, highball-loving couple. Under W.S. Van Dyke’s light-handed direction, The Thin Man was an ideal blend of the sleuthing-for-fun strain with glib, fast-paced screwball comedy, both highly popular genres at the time.
Nobody could spit out a one-liner — and The Thin Man is rife with gems — like William Powell. At the movie’s climactic dinner party where all the mystery’s suspects have been assembled as guests, and apish cops squeezed into waiter’s uniforms are serving, a boozy Powell announces melodramatically: “The murderer is right in this room! Sitting at this table!” and then, an aside to one of the cop/waiters without missing a beat, “You may serve the fish.”
The film was a huge success and kicked off a series of high-end Thin Man sequels (while “The Thin Man” came to mean Nick Charles, in the original it’s actually a reference to the story’s murder victim). But a new strain of grittier detective story had already been seeping into the mystery novel arena, ironically kicked off by the same guy who’d come up with fluffy The Thin Man: Dashiell Hammett. Four years before The Thin Man had lit up page and screen, Hammett had come up with The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade; a private eye who would no doubt have preferred a shot and a beer in a quiet neighborhood saloon to the Charleses’ uptown art deco palaces serving the sloe gin fizz set.
In outline, Falcon still resembled the kind of fanciful Doyle-esque storytelling dominating the market at the time. Its tale of a collection of oddball treasure hunters jockeying with each other in pursuit of the eponymous falcon – a storied, jewel-encrusted statue – could very well be one of those Agatha Christie Death on the Nile affairs, or a Sherlock Holmes number i.e. The Case of the Maltese Falcon. Except for Sam Spade.
Hammett is credited as one of the sires of “hard-boiled” fiction, and it shows in Falcon in his tough-edged prose and his equally tough-edged hero. Spade is no gifted amateur, nor some globe-trotting snoop of international renown. He’s a working stiff, distinctly blue collar, working out of a modest office with a partner who’s “…a son of a bitch. I found that out the first week we were in business together…” Spade is no white knight either. He has a history of messing around with his partner’s wife, and he’s less interested in riding to the rescue of some poor distressed damsel than in a payday. When Spade’s partner is killed early on, their guilt-ridden client admits she’d lied to them when she’d hired them. “We didn’t exactly believe your story,” replies Spade. “We believed your two hundred dollars.” And the cops Spade deals with are not the clueless, ten-steps-behind bumblers floating around the edge of puzzle-driven stories. They’re as tough and sharp and likely to make a point laying a fist on somebody’s chin as Spade is.
Hammet brought something else new to the mystery party as well: flesh-and-blood drama. The Maltese Falcon doesn’t end when Spade unravels the mystery of who killed his partner; that solution is only the beginning of the story’s tragic, biting finale.
Brigid O’Shaughnessy – the woman who’d first hired Spade and his partner, and who has played the please-help-me victim through much of the story – is the killer, the rub being that Spade and O’Shaughnessy have fallen in love with each other. Spade is now faced with the dilemma of shielding the woman he loves and who he realizes has been playing him throughout the case, or turning her over to the police on behalf of a partner he couldn’t stand. His tormented and tormenting decision: “I won’t play the sap for you.”
It took Hollywood a few tries to get Falcon right. Warner Bros. gave it a shot in 1931, and then, again, in 1936, before John Huston made his nearly line-for-line classic adaptation in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart in one of his first great roles as Sam Spade. Bogart’s streetwise, smart-mouthed Spade would serve as a blueprint for the next generation of movie PI.
A few years after Hammett begat Spade, Raymond Chandler begat Philip Marlowe, taking Hammett’s hard-boiled stuff and boiling it still harder. Lean back and squint, and Marlowe, whom Chandler introduced in his 1939 novel, The Big Sleep, seems less his own man then Sam Spade a few years on. He’s just as much a shot-and-a-beer guy as Spade, just as tough, just as cynical, but a bit more ruminative, a bit more intellectual-leaning (Marlowe has a fondness for chess and poetry), and his universe is more definitively that of real world foibles. And, also like Spade, despite his deep embedding in a seamy profession taking him to even seamier places, Marlowe remains committed to some vague, tattered and battered notions of honor and nobility (“I’m a romantic, Bernie. I hear voices crying in the night and I go to see what’s the matter. You don’t make a dime that way. . . No percentage in it at all.”).
Warner Bros. wasn’t oblivious to the Spade/Marlowe resemblance and cast Bogart in their 1946 film adaptation of The Big Sleep, helmed by that master of cinematic machismo, Howard Hawks. Change the character’s name and Sleep could just as well serve as a sequel to The Maltese Falcon.
As the 1940s wore on, the pool of colorful sleuths which had been filling out the bottom half of double bills began to thin out. The mental wizards like Sherlock Holmes and dilettantes like Miss Marple and Ellery Queen and the high-priced white collar sleuths like Hercule Poirot never completely lost their popularity, particularly in the world of print. But they now had to share the stage, steadily giving more of the limelight over to a new, increasingly popular PI iconography in the Spade/Marlowe mold: a street-wise guy in a slouch hat and trench coat, a cigarette hanging from his lips, and cynicism pulling at a tattered and banged-up sense of honor. These whiskey-drinking, quip-dealing tough guys didn’t chase lost treasures or unravel byzantine inheritance-swiping capers, but were hired to deal with/were sucked into/stumbled on nests of blackmail, extortion, adultery, drugs, and all those other nasty, dirty sins which audiences could recognize as being part of the same world they lived in.
Cynics though they might be – hoping for the best but expecting the worst of people — Spade/Marlowe still shared at least one value with their more lightweight puzzle-solving counterparts. The cops and the legal system were still the ultimate arbiters; it still fell to them to mete out justice to whoever was left standing at the end of the story, the villain (or villainess, as the case might be) turned over by a glum-faced PI who’d found his dim view of humankind sadly confirmed — again. Spade and Marlowe may have often operated a foot or two over the legal line, but they were not renegades nor – most especially — were they vigilantes.
Then came Mike Hammer, and the same could hardly be said of him.
It is impossible to convey to post-boomer generations the traumatic effect of World War II on the national psyche. One can talk about whole cities razed, entire populations dislocated, the death of fifty million people and the wounding and crippling of tens of millions more, but almost seven decades after the surrender of Germany and Japan, those become meaningless abstracts. Suffice to say that the people who lived through those war years – and especially those who fought their way through them – could never look at the world the same way they had before the war.
Today, about one in every 300 Americans or so either serves in the active military or is in the Reserves or National Guard. During World War II, the ratio was one in nine. America’s citizen soldiers came home carrying with them memories of the nightmarish brutality and violence they’d seen, visions of heretofore unimagined depths of human depravity, and through their massive numbers made them part of the great national consciousness.
The war was not the only force reshaping American sensibilities. The sense of righteous triumph which had come with the end of the greatest conflict in history was short-lived, replaced by a growing sense of frustration, confusion, and disillusionment. No sooner had one war ended then another, more insidious one had begun; a cold war. In this new conflict, instead of a division between Allies and Axis there came a face-off between the (comparatively) free capitalist west and the totalitarian communist east. Countries which had, just a few years before, been united in the war against the Nazis and Japanese were now turned on each other. And after two world wars and a combined 80-90 million dead, nations still hadn’t learned how to live peaceably with each other.
But this time, under the Damocletian threat of nuclear annihilation should the conflict become open and large-scale, the weapons of choice were espionage, subversion, seduction, corruption, limited war by proxy. The enemy, so the fear-mongers told us, wouldn’t be in uniform, coming at us across a battlefield, marching beneath a flag. The enemy could be a misguided or co-opted familiar face: a jovial comedian on TV, a famous journalist, a trusted member of the government…maybe even the guy next door.
So, along with the sunny images of postwar America – poodle skirts, soda shops, big-finned cars, the trim-lawned suburbs springing up like mushrooms in a fairy circle around the country’s cities – there was also an undercurrent of unease and suspicion, and sometimes, more blatantly, groundless fear-fueled accusation and blacklisting.
Out of the interplay of those two dynamics – the haunting images of the great conflict, and the disillusionment and paranoia of the postwar years – came a new sensibility in film (and which also extended to literature) which came to be known as noir.
Noir was a fascination with the dark side, an understanding that not only did bad things happen to good people, but that under the right circumstances, good people could do bad things…very bad things. In noir, the distinction between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys became blurry… that is when there was a distinction at all. In noir tales, sometimes there were no Good Guys; just varying degrees of Bad Guys.
Noir was an extension of the shadows Hammett and Chandler had already been moving in, only declared more emphatically and confirmed by both the war and the unsettled, unnerving years which followed. It was into this confusing, threatening environment that Mickey Spillane launched Mike Hammer in his 1947 debut novel, I, the Jury.
Mike Hammer was not the next evolutionary step after Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Rather, he was a quantum leap forward, a break with the restraints of the past, and a recognition of the moral chaos of the present. The appeal of Hammer was paradoxical: he brought with him a welcome moral certainty in uncertain times, while at the same time operating in the most morally ambivalent of ways.
In an era of moral grays, Hammer lived in moral blacks and whites. Anybody he rated as good people – like recurring character Pat Chambers, his best friend from his days as a cop — he committed to with an unequivocal Band-of-Brothers foxhole-buddy loyalty (Hammer was a veteran of the brutal fighting in the Pacific in WW II). But if you fell on the wrong side of his ledger – and especially if you wronged someone he cared about – God help you.
In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade barely lifted his fists, and in seven novels Philip Marlowe only killed once in self-defense. But a Mike Hammer novel wasn’t a Mike Hammer novel unless Hammer ran up a body count. He had no qualms about using violence while his precursors often acted as if even raising a hand was the court of last resort. For Hammer, it was just another tool in the tool box, and, not uncommonly, his tool of choice used without reservation and often exercised with a certain satisfaction.
If Hammer sometimes seemed to enjoy busting someone in the nose just to get a discussion going, it seemed Spillane equally enjoyed describing it in lush detail. Today, it may seem needlessly indulgent, but in the late 1940s, Spillane’s graphic punch-by-punch accounts had the same shock value as Sam Peckinpah’s slo-mo shootouts would have 20 years later in The Wild Bunch (1969).
Hammer was just as liberal with his libido as he was with the .45 automatic he carried under his arm (not quite the cannon Harry Callahan’s .44 Magnum was, but just as much an exercise in overkill). Despite his long-standing feelings for his secretary, Velda, Hammer didn’t seem to have much trouble winding up in the sack with any pretty thing expressing an interest. By today’s standards, Spillane’s sex scenes may seem tepid, but neither were they the discrete fades to black (or their literary equivalent) which were the standard at the time.
I, the Jury was a clear opening declaration of what a Mike Hammer read was going to be in the years to come. Hammer swears revenge over the body of a war buddy who’d lost an arm saving Hammer’s life. As Hammer investigates the killing, every possible suspect winds up murdered. In the end, Hammer discovers the murderer is the woman he’s fallen in love with. He confronts her, she goes for her gun, Hammer gets to his first, and that’s that.
You want a defining difference between then-and-now literary PIs? Sam Spade deals with his betraying femme fatale by “sending her over” to the cops. Hammer puts a .45 slug through his. After the horrors of WW II, a readership was in place which could look at something like that and say, “Yeah, I can see it.”
The draw for readers was that Mike Hammer, PI, was a cut-through-the-bullshit guy at a time when John Q. Average – assaulted left and right by news about the stalemate in Korea, Russia’s acquisition of the atomic bomb, fanned-fears of communist infiltration, China going red, churchmen and politicians looking to raise a vote-amassing stink yammering about banning rock ‘n’ roll shows and censoring comic books lest they somehow corrupt American youth – felt helpless and besieged by bullshit.
Spillane’s books were a defiant, “Oh, you think that stuff is bad? How about this!” And while Spillane’s fiction was hardly realistic, there was still a form of honesty to it. After the unrestrained brutality of the past war, and the nuclear threat of the undeclared then-current one, the restraint of old school PI fiction – and the demand from political and religious leaders to maintain it – seemed like the most abject hypocrisy.
Which at least partly explains why all the finger-wagging didn’t stop people from buying his books by the millions. Nor did the lambastes Spillane suffered from reviewers, even though they may have had a more legitimate case to make than the holy-rolling bluenoses.
At best, Spillane’s writing was considered workmanlike, serviceable, his books driven more by the strength of their action/sex-heavy plots than his literary skill. And Spillane may have brought some of that critical heat on himself. He was famous (or infamous, if you prefer) for going with his first drafts, maybe only doing a few nips and tucks before turning in his work.
Which is a shame, because Spillane may have been a better writer than even Spillane had given himself credit for. His pacing was breathless, and his often abrupt starts and shocking endings were surgically precise. And while his writing wasn’t nearly as evocative as Chandler or – later — the up-and-coming Ross MacDonald, there were stretches of prose both deftly succinct yet nearly poetic. It’s tempting to think what a Mickey Spillane novel might have read like if he hadn’t banged through them so damned quickly, or had been more willing to go back and spend more time with them in rewriting.
Whatever their literary shortcomings, they obviously hit a sweet spot with the mass audience. His books were fast, action-laden, sexy, cathartic, his stripped-down straight-ahead prose easy to digest, there was none of that moral haziness of most noir, his Good Guys and Bad Guys were defined with eye-poking clarity. And, compared to the airy-fairy stuff of an Agatha Christie and that bunch, Spillane’s novels were down-and-dirty gritty in a way which connected with Mr. Everyman. Said Spillane, explaining the blue-collar appeal of his books: “Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar…”
Even at the peak of their popularity, the Mike Hammers couldn’t make a successful transition off the page. Not that Hollywood didn’t try. With a property running those kinds of numbers, Hollywood couldn’t not try.
Five of Spillane’s novels were adapted to the screen from 1953-1963 including I, the Jury (1953), but none of them set off major fireworks at the box office. Frustrated over how badly his work was mangled in its transition to the movies, Spillane himself adapted The Girl Hunters (1963) for a British production, and even starred as Mike Hammer. It didn’t help.
The only noteworthy effort of the bunch was Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides turned into a film noir classic (although only a modestly earning one) by plugging into atomic age paranoias, and making Hammer less a blunt instrument of justice than a self-serving prick. The movie’s Hammer supports a cushy lifestyle working on sleazy divorce cases, only asks of a case threatening national security, “What’s in it for me?”, and is aptly characterized by one female character as “…one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself.”
In 1958, TV gave the character a whirl with Mike Hammer, a half-hour, corpse-laden syndicated series which lasted only 78 episodes and which TV Guide blasted as “…easily the worst show on TV.”
The problem may have been that Hollywood simply couldn’t do Spillane, at least not just then. Consider that as late as 1962 in Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum’s character could talk about the time he’d served for rape, he could talk about the rape he’d committed against his ex-wife, and he could threaten object-of-his-revenge Gregory Peck with the rape of his tweener daughter…but he couldn’t say the word “rape.” And here was Mike Hammer whom, if he wasn’t punching someone’s lights out or gunning them down, he was getting some luscious thing into the sack.
By the time film content restraints began to loosen up in the mid-60s, it was too late. Spillane’s books – while still selling – had passed the peak of their popularity. The private eye genre – at least in movies – was on the wane and wouldn’t pick up again until 1966’s Harper (an adaptation of Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target).
By then, Spillane was old hat. The new generation of audience coming into play was latching on to their own cohort’s antiheroes who were very much in the ruthless, id-driven, Mike Hammer mold, but had a glitzier, more contemporary feel to them, like James Bond, Lee Marvin’s “Walker” in Point Blank (1967), the self-destructive mavericks of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), any of Sam Peckinpah’s outlaws and renegades.
The only notable success Mike Hammer had off the page was in the modestly successful TV series, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, which ran from 1984-1987 on CBS (and was resurrected for a single season in the late 1990s). But the series tamped down many of Spillane’s excesses, and the character was played almost as a man out of his time — not unlike what Robert Altman did with Chandler’s Marlowe in the deconstructionist The Long Goodbye (1973) – an approach which sometimes verged on camp.
By the 1980s, Spillane’s name wasn’t the money-minting brand it had been though he remained creatively active almost up to his death. It was clear Mike Hammer’s day was long, long past.
But then, not quite.
Max Allan Collins, a successful mystery writer in his own right, had befriended Spillane late in the writer’s life, and they collaborated on a number of projects together. As Collins tells it in an author’s note in Lady, Go Die!:
“A week before his death (in 2006), Mickey Spillane told his wife Jane, ‘When I’m gone, there’s going to be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max – he’ll know what to do.” Lady, Go Die! is the fifth of Spillane’s uncompleted manuscripts Collins has taken on.
Lady, Go Die! was intended as a direct follow-up to I, the Jury. A psychologically bruised Mike Hammer goes off with his secretary Velda to a small Long Island resort town to recover from the events of the previous book. Hammer’s first night in town, he stumbles into the beating of mentally handicapped beachcomber by three crooked cops. Hammer quickly dispatches the trio, but even before the swelling in his knuckles goes down, a naked blonde turns up dead on the town green. His curiosity piqued, Hammer noses deeper into a rat’s nest of dirty cops, corrupt politicos, a palatial illegal gambling den catering to the big city money crowd, and a possible intersection with a series of bizarre murders.
So, how does it stack up in the Mike Hammer canon (which is not the same thing as asking if it’s any good, but we’ll get to that)?
This much is clear: Collins has seamlessly merged with Spillane, flawlessly acquiring the late author’s voice. There’s absolutely no sense of two styles, two consciousnesses vying for position. Spillane may have started Lady, Go Die! back in the 40s, and Collins may have completed it sixty-odd years later, but the book reads as if written with one pen.
And Collins has also tapped into the Spillane/Hammer vibe. Lady has the express train energy typical of Spillane, the book rocketing off to a fast start from its first sentence: “They were kicking the hell out of the little guy.” And thereafter the book almost never stops for a breath, and the action continues to come in regular graphic doses. Here’s Hammer dealing with the ring leader of that opening beating:
“The right I sent into his pan would have broken that nose if there had been enough cartilage left to matter. But the blow still managed to send ribbons of scarlet streaming from his nostrils and down his surprised expression. My left doubled him over, and then my right and left clasped in prayer to smash him on the back of his fat neck, sending him onto the alley floor in a sprawling belly flop. I was on his back, rubbing his face in the gravel…”
It’s not all tough-guy talk and heaving breasts. There are those moments – a fair number of them — when Spillane’s no-nonsense prose slows for a few beats, and a bit of Chandleresque atmospherics seeps in:
“The cab rolled through a nighttime city cool and calm with twinkles of light and touches of neon giving it a soothing dreamy quality. But I knew the statistics. Somebody would be getting killed out there, right now.”
In some ways, Collins may have done too good a job. He’s left the story where Spillane set it, in the late 40s, and he captures the attitude and patter filled with references to dames, heaters (guns), heaps (cars), and so on flawlessly. But, that leaves Lady, Go Die! feeling a bit stale, like a book from its time rather than a new book set back in time. It’s like reading late Hemingway, where – stuck in that ultra-spare style that was Papa’s trademark – books like Across the River and into the Trees seem less Hemingway than a clever pastiche of Hemingway.
Also like Spillane, there’s not a lot of meat on the bone. Nuance was never Spillane’s strong suit: the plotting is pretty straightforward, characters quickly fall into clearly good and clearly bad categories, and the book’s big twist – when it goes off into serial killer territory – depending on your taste is either going to play like a surprising and clever zig, or an awkwardly out-of-nowhere zag. But it should be said that either way, it does take the reader to one of those gut-punching finales Spillane was famous for (no spoilers here; suffice to say you can almost see it as a movie — a gunshot and abrupt cut to black).
But is it good?
Asking if a Spillane novel is good is like asking why a diner burger doesn’t taste like tenderloin. A Spillane novel is what it is, and you either like Spillane or you don’t. The book deserves attention if for no other reason it successfully extends the canon of a writer who – love ‘im or hate ‘im – largely liberated and reshaped crime fiction forever after.
Verdict: If you like your PI tales fast, brutal, with a hefty body count, aren’t too worried about credibility, and don’t feel like wasting time with moody prose, Go, Lady Die! is a fun ride.
Otherwise, head over to the library and check out a Chandler.