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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mike Hammer is Big, Tough and Violent. But is He Still Relevant?

By Mickey Spillane

File Size: 611 KB

Print Length: 176 pages
Original publisher: Signet (June 1, 1950)
Penguin Publishing


Is Mickey Spillane still worth reading, and if so, why?
I found myself pondering that question recently after working my way through My Gun is Quick, a 1950 book that is one of Spillane's earlier novels, and watching the film that was made from it a few years later.
The relatively simple story line follows an arc familiar to those who have read any of Spillane's other stories. A chance meeting in a grimy cafe with a streetwalker named Red kicks off the action. When a hoodlum named Feeney Last enters the joint and demands she come with him, Hammer slaps the thug down and draws on him as he reaches for his gun.

Private Eye Mike Hammer admires Streetwalker Red's
manicure  at the beginning of My Gun is Quick.

Hammer smacks Berin-Grotin's henchman 
 Feeney Last  for having such a terrible name. Last's name was so bad,
in fact, that he was renamed "Louie" for the film.

"Just touch that rod you got and I'll blow your damned greasy head off," the private eye snarls in a line reminiscent of Sudden Impact's "Dirty Harry" Callahan. "Go ahead, just make one lousy move toward it."
Hammer disarms the goon and turns him over to some uniformed cops; then, in an uncharacteristic act of altruism, he gives Red money enough to buy a decent outfit and make a new start. The next morning, however, the prostitute turns up dead, the supposed victim of a hit-run driver.
The private eye investigates, initially hoping only to identify the dead girl, but later seeking revenge when it turns out she was murdered. While tracking down her killer and the reason for her death, he encounters prostitutes, thugs and a vice ring protected by crooked police.
As he works his way toward the novel's conclusion, Hammer leaves a trail of unconscious villains and dead bodies. He dispatches the chief bad guy with gleefully sadistic brutality on the last page of the book, just above the words, "The End."
In other words, My Gun is Quick is vintage Hammer -- and not terribly different from the rest of Spillane's novels.
The book was written in 1950, five years after V-J day and during the onset of the second great American Red Scare. It was a period in which things seemed to be going to hell in ways nobody could remedy: the Korean War was just getting started and U.S. "advisers" had just landed in Vietnam. 
Parkland Pictures, a quickie independent production company in Hollywood that optioned four of Spillane's books and hired him to work on screen adaptations, made a film very loosely based on the novel seven years later.

The 1957 film differs from Spillane's novel in a number of significant ways.

Even though the quality of Spillane's writing is inconsistent and most of his characters are flat and lifeless, the novel is considerably superior to the movie. It offers as good an introduction to the formula Spillane followed through his literary life as a reader is likely to find.
The film suffers because of a number of changes that were made in the plot line and incidental details of the story. To a certain extent, the protagonist of the book and the movie are two different people: the Hammer in the novel is a brute who pounds one villain's face into mush with his fists. The one in the movie is just another not-very-bright gumshoe trying to figure out a mystery, more likely to be beaten up by the bad guys than to do any beating himself.
In the film, it is only obliquely suggested that Red (Jan Chaney) is a prostitute. When Hammer (Robert Bray) investigates her death, he traces it to a ring dealing in a cache of European jewels stolen by Nazis and "liberated" by Colonel Holloway (Donald Randolph), an allied officer who has been imprisoned for stealing the missing gems since the end of the war. The fact that Red sold sexual favors for a living is not material to the bigger mystery of her death, and is essentially glossed over.
Red's profession is more critical in the novel where Hammer links her murder to a prostitution ring headed by Arthur Berin-Grotin, a wealthy New York society figure who is protected by corrupt police.
Stolen jewels were made the McGuffin in the movie  because prostitution was a topic off-limits to filmmakers during the period. While the switch is understandable, it has the effect of turning the film into a feeble imitation of The Maltese Falcon. And an imitation it most definitely is: during his confrontation with Nancy Williams (Whitney Blake), the film's primary villain, Hammer even paraphrases Sam Spade's comment to Brigit O'Shaughnessy -- that if she really loves him, he'll be waiting for her when she gets out of prison.
In addition, the plot change eliminates the final confrontation between Hammer and the primary villains, Berin-Grotin and his henchman, Last -- an ending that underscores Hammer's reputation as a sadistic vigilante who delights in imposing his own form of violent justice.
Because the plot has been "sanitized" for consumption by a motion picture audience, the film seems watered down. Hammer's gun may, indeed, be quick, but it is only fired during a confrontation with the jewel smugglers at the end -- a confrontation that seems less motivated by a vigilante's desire for vengeance than it is by self-defense.
That summarizes the major plot change. However, the incidental differences between the book and film are just as striking.
In all Spillane's Mike Hammer books, the private eye's office is located in Manhattan, a massive metropolitan center overpopulated by eight million residents crammed into a claustrophobically small territory cut off on all sides by water.
In the film, however, his shop is in Los Angeles, some 3,000 miles to the south and west. This is due largely to the fact that this movie -- like Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), and I, The Jury (1953) -- was a low-budget programmer ground out by a Poverty Row production company. Like most indie producers, Parklane Pictures pinched every penny it could; it was simply cheaper to relocate the plot to the West Coast than to recreate Manhattan on sound stages or traipse across the country and film in New York City.
Unfortunately, the geographical shift is problematic.
Los Angeles is getaway territory that runs for miles across a flat, desert-like plain, and a two-hour drive will put you in another state or even another country. The warm waters of the Pacific Ocean crowding up against L.A.'s  western flank were a lawless zone controlled by gangsters  and used for gambling, prostitution and smuggling up until the second war. The wide-open spaces of the ocean represent freedom, not a barrier. The border is as porous as a colander, and barely slows the traffic in drugs and human beings that constitute a major part of California's underworld economy.
In My Gun is Quick, the California sunlight in practically every exterior shot undercuts the hard-boiled character of the original Spillane story, which begs for a noirish, claustrophobic  atmosphere, deep shadows and chiaroscuro lighting.
(For Kiss Me, Deadly, which was made four years earlier and starred Ralph Meeker as Hammer, director Robert Aldrich had the sense to set as much of the action as possible indoors or at night, eliminating the Southern California glare and the sense of unbroken space. Other tough guy crime pictures (for example, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Roman Polanski's Chinatown) have been filmed in bright daylight, but there were cinematic reasons for doing so. In My Gun is Quick, it is simply a convenience for the producer, who didn't need to hire lighting technicians for many of the scenes.)
If the locale to which the story has been moved is problematic, even more so is the casting of Spillane's iconic hero: Most of Meeker's career was spent playing villains and anti-heroes. His sadistic smirk worked against him in more heroic parts but helps to establish Hammer's brutality in Kiss Me, Deadly.
Bray, who specialized in westerns and played a ranger on the TV series Lassie, is too bland and impassive to project the violent and brutal Hammer. He has the size and bulk to be Spillane's hard guy, but his boy scout's mien makes him sound more jocose than menacing when he utters lines such as this warning to Shorty, the diner operator who is holding out on him: "It's not easy to talk when you've just choked on your own teeth."

Tough guy lines like his exchange with diner counterman Shorty
sound silly coming from the Boy Scoutish
Robert Bray, star of My Gun is  Quick.

 The plot alteration, change of venue and casting problems are not deal-breakers for the movie made from My Gun is Quick, but they do interfere with the mood of the film and reflect a Hammer that is less violent, thuggish and stereotypical than the one in Spillane's books.
The novel the film is based on, My Gun is Quick, has its own shortcomings, but they are symptomatic of Spillane's writing style, first-person point of view and reliance on his hero's cathartic sadism for plot resolution.   
The rap on Spillane is that he was a bad writer: barely literate and inclined to rely on violence when he ran out of legitimate ideas; his critics disparage him as a woman-hater whose prose was steeped in misogyny.

The old Mickster, sans lo-cal beer. In the 1980s and 1990s, Spillane was better known as a brew pitchman than writer of hard-boiled crime novels.

Typical was Raymond Chandler, no stranger to pulp magazines himself, having cranked out numerous stories for publications such as Black Mask. Phillip Marlowe's creator once said of Spillane's novels, "pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff."
With all due respect, Chandler's denigration seems wildly overstated.
Spillane's style is unquestionably crude though it improved over the years and was closing in on a Jim Thompson level of quality at the end of his most productive period. Most of what cripples his narrative style is the breakneck speed with which he laid down his copy (he reportedly cranked out his seminal I, The Jury in three weeks to raise $1,000 for a real estate purchase) and his steadfast refusal to rewrite anything but a sloppy endorsement on a paycheck.
He is given to repeating himself, sometimes even using the same word more than once in a single sentence. When Hammer is discussing Red's death with his cop chum, Pat Chambers, for example, Spillane inserts the words "kid" or "kids" twice in one paragraph, giving the entire passage a yawn-inducing dullness.
Spillane also has a ham-handed way of using slang that can be like fingernails on a blackboard. When Pat comments on Hammer's irritability, the private eye replies, "Aw, I'm sorry Pat. [The death's] kind of got me loused up."  
The last time I looked, "loused up" was a transitive verbal construction that required a direct object (e.g.: this book is loused up, the evidence was all loused up). It is not a psychological state or irritability.
A little later, Hammer reminds Chambers that they have always told each other the truth in the past: "Sure we've crossed once or twice, but you always have the bull on me before we start," he says. This comment had me rolling my eyes in confusion, wondering exactly what it was they had crossed (swords? stars? their eyes?), and what "bull" was supposed to mean in this context. The sentence is flatly incoherent and should have been revised to make some sort of sense.
Spillane is never worse than when he attempts something "writerly," like a literary allusion that unmasks him as hopelessly lame. When his private eye blows smoke at Chambers during a conversation in mid-novel, Hammer  comments, apropos of nothing, "The smoke it encircled his head like a wreath."
Chambers, bewildered, says "What?"
"Excerpt from the 'Night Before Christmas,' " Hammer replies. "You probably can't go back that far."
That's it. The allusion is not picked up again and there is no explanation why it occurred to Hammer or how it found its way onto the page.  It just sits there like a two-day old mackerel, attracting houseflies.
On the other hand, Spillane is occasionally capable of sharp, memorable writing. At one point early in My Gun is Quick, Hammer says of his secretary Velda, "I didn't figure she'd turn out to be so smart. Good-looking ones seldom are. She's big, she's beautiful and she's got a brain that can figure angles while mine only figures the curves."
In a couple of sentences here, Spillane gives you significant information about Velda's attractiveness and intelligence and his own personality -- that he tends to only notice an attractive woman's physical attributes, but that he recognizes this shortcoming. He notes it by making a self-deprecating joke: "she's got a brain that can figure angles while mine only figures the curves."
The brief passage shows that Hammer is brighter -- or at least shrewder -- that he appears to be. It also shows a Bakhtinian facility with dialog on Spillane's part: a manner of blending traditional speech, jargon and common slang that identifies the character culturally, places him precisely in terms of time, place, social class, education and background, and makes his occupation as a professional tough guy clear.
And while metaphor is not Spillane's strongest point as a writer, he is capable of relatively sophisticated word play and shows some facility with metaphorical constructions. For example, while pursuing a villain toward the end of My Gun is Quick, Hammer observes:
"I knew where he was heading . . . knew he wanted to make the West Side Highway where he could make a run for it without traffic hazard, thinking he might lose me with speed. . . [but] he couldn't lose me now or ever. I was the guy with the cowl and the scythe. I had a hundred and forty black horses under me and an hourglass in my hand, laughing like crazy until the tears rolled down my cheeks. . ." 
The grim reaper allusion in this passage is gold, hardly the metaphor that a semi-literate thug would use. Yet it fits the character because it is clearly how Hammer sees himself. And the switch from the plebeian setup ("I knew where he was heading") to the reaper reference ("I was the guy with the cowl") commands attention. It is a shift from the informal ("guy") to a symbolic representation of death that conjures the reaper.
It is almost as if Spillane has adopted a straightforward, first-person delivery as the baseline of his prose. But, like his character Hammer, every once in a while he slaps the reader in the face, just to hold onto his attention.
Either that, or it means Spillane was a much better writer than he appears to be and simply was too lazy to sharpen his material and make it sing.
Which brings me, indirectly, back to my original question: if his plots are programmatic, the villains uni-dimensional and his writing erratic, what's the point of reading Spillane's stuff or seeing the films made from it?
Perhaps the best reason for picking up a Spillane thriller is the need to understand their place in popular culture -- the historical fact that they reflect the beginning of a sea-change in American social attitudes in the post-war period. Though despised by critics, Mike Hammer is the modern lone gunman, the vigilante whose muscle-bound sense of morality forces him to oppose wrongdoing, and whose blind good fortune always leads him to the real criminals, regardless of how much the evidence may point to somebody else.
Spillane -- who honed his skills writing for comic books, a literary form that is often dependent on individual heroes who act outside the law -- damned near created the modern vigilante genre. With their programmatic violence, stunted emotions and suggestion that shadowy forces are working maliciously behind the scenes, the Hammer books made the paranoid thrillers that followed them possible. Spillane's violent and sadistic private eye represents the alienated anti-hero that had such influence over genre literature during the Korean War era, Red Scare and the beginning of the conflict in Vietnam. An argument could be made that he is the first, fully-formed example of the species.
In Spillane novels like My Gun is Quick, the system has broken down beyond repair: police are impotent or corrupt, rich men benefit from organized crime, bad people get away with evil and the judges that are supposed to administer our laws belong to the same social clubs as those who break them. 
Mike Hammer outwardly seems cynical about this societal breakdown, but inwardly he takes it as a personal affront. For example, when he learns that a thug is licensed to carry a firearm because he is working as a rich man's bodyguard, Hammer responds, "I whistled through my teeth and hung up. Now they were giving out licenses to guys who wanted to kill people. Oh great. Just fine."
Hammer picks up his gun because the legal authorities are hamstrung by rules designed to protect evil-doers. He takes vengeance on hoodlums and their bosses because nobody else will.
Even an honest cop like his friend, Pat Chambers, lacks the authority and gumption to do the right thing. Chambers, though likeable, is impeded by red tape and bureaucratic rules. His actions are controlled by people upstairs who have no interest in justice -- and, in this case, "upstairs" symbolically signifies the ruling class which uses its wealth and legal minions to skirt the law.
This is why Feeney Last, the knife-wielding, neck-breaking thug directly responsible for much of the mayhem in My Gun is Quick, is only a secondary villain.  If you want to know who is really behind the novel's evil, look to Berin-Grotin, the wealthy socialite: in a world in which property is theft, the rich man is always the bad guy; the self-directed anarchist who cannot be controlled but insists on fighting the power, no matter what happens, is his worst nightmare.

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