I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane (Review-Essay)
Tuesday, August 15, 2006 10:34:43 PM
Creativity is rarely destructive. With the exception of creating new
weapons of mass destruction or generating the kind of hate-filled
propaganda that the Nazis put out during WWII (and that others have
since put out), creativity usually emerges as a positive or at the very
least neutral force in the world. To put out a new idea in the form of a
story, a painting, a piece of music etc. is usually a positive force in
the world. Where there was nothing, now there is something. Something
new for us to read, look at, listen to. Hopefully, something that will
lift our sprits a bit, or if it doesn't then perhaps the creation makes
us more aware of our world in some way -- the light and the dark.
Creation is the universe itself. Take a look at telescope views of Orion
or other reaches of space and you will see stars without number, and the
ongoing process of creation.
Mickey Spillane died on 18 July 2006. His death was reported, of course.
You could find notices on the internet and in newspapers if you turned
enough pages. I watched the national news as well as The News Hour
with Jim Lehrner to see if they would do a report or maybe even a
little segment on Spillane. If any of them did, I missed it. Amidst the
conflict in Iraq and the new explosions in Lebanon, and North Korea
throwing its tin-can missiles into the Pacific, and a terrorist strike
in India, everything else was just pushed to the background.
And that's probably how it should be. But conflict and terror are
nothing new in the world, they are just that which is billed up as
today's new War or new Terrorism. At the time Mickey Spillane began
writing his Mike Hammer novels in 1946, America was just beginning the
long process of healing after a four-year war that reached into and
effected just about every home in the country. Men returned from the war
having carried ten-pound rifles across their shoulders through the
jungles of the south Pacific or from bombing missions in Europe that
were unparalleled in their attrition rate. Soldiers like these would
never look at the world in the same way again, nor would the nurses who
took care of them or the reporters who reported them or the parents and
brothers and sisters who had to sit and wait and hope for that next
letter from them. And as for the rest of the world, it also had its
share of sorrows after the huge conflict subsided -- economic ruin,
cities in rubble, the emergence of the nightmare of the death camps into
the public view, as well as the new threat posed by the Soviet Union,
which at that point -- or even today -- didn't seem much different than
the fascism that the war had just fought against.
America had changed during the war. Added to this was a huge expansion
in economics and population. The factories during the war that had made
fighters or bombers now turned to commercial aviation, and plants like
Lockheed and Boeing contributed to a new era of transportation in
America. Added to the economic expansion was social and cultural change
and discontent. If Communism was a threat, so was police corruption,
racism, drug use, a new rise in organized crime and, eventually, even a
new war in Korea. The Cold War had begun, with visions of potential
nuclear detruction looming on the horizon. As one critic has said,
society had moved from the Lost Generation to possibly the Last
Generation in the space of a few decades.
This was Mickey Spillane's world during his early career. And it was
the world that he wrote his books for. Spillane, influenced greatly by
the great hard-boiled pioneer Carroll John Daly, decided that he wasn't
going to sweep the grit and the grime under the table and create some
sort of nice, pleasant Disneyland for everybody to walk through. If life
and society weren't that way, why should a novel have blinders on?
Spillane, in peeper-speak, played it tough.
And it got him into one hell of a lot of trouble, at least as far as the
critics and social commentators went. The ending of I, the Jury
was shocking, or at least it was shocking for those who weren't
familiar with earlier hardboiled fiction from the 20s and 30s. The
public, on the other hand, seemed to have no problem with it. They had
been through the war and were looking at things straight-on with no
blinders. There was evil to be fought, and Spillane's Mike Hammer fought
it. They didn't want Mark Twain or Leo Tolstoy. They bought the book --
and for Spillane it was the public and not the critics who were the
ultimate jury -- and they bought it up like crazy. My own 1953 Signet
copy of I, the Jury is from the 33rd printing since the first
edition in 1947. That's a pretty decisive thumbs-up.
He came into a lot of flack in his day and since for his comments on
Communism. But to put him into the camp of McCarthyism would simply
be mistaken. Spillane's attitude was not very much different towards
Communism than the average American of his day, at least as far as I can
determine from anything he actually said or did (and perhaps one scene in
One Lonely Night excepted). Twenty years after Spillane's first
publication streak, Ronald Reagan would be saying much the same things
from the podium of the Oval Office talking about the "Evil Empire."
Spillane was published in paperback form, for the most part. After the
war publishers decided that what people might like were books that were
light-weight and cheap. The paperback novel can be stuck in your pocket,
unlike the hardback editions. It was the dime- or pulp-serial revisited
in a new form (and in fact it was the new paperback novel that is usually
credited as being the downfall of the pulp serials). My 1953 copy cost
25 cents back then -- not exactly dirt-cheap for that time but far less
than a hardback would cost and less than the cost of morning breakfast
at a diner. Hardback novels certainly last a lot longer on library shelves
where they are checked out and read over and over. But from an individual
point of view, as well as a kind of egalitarian point of view, the
paperback is king. All too often you see a writer behind the table of
some bookstore, signing their autograph to hardbacks in front of a long
line of loyal fans. That's okay, if you like that kind of thing. I would
rather find a copy of my work in paperback form on the rack of the airport
gift shop, where it might provide some entertainment for that next
twelve-hour flight to Sydney. That's my idea of success, and I think
that it was probably Spillane's also.
Which is not to say that writers write for the masses -- probably not
any writer does it that way. There is something incredibly emotional and
personal about the act of generating a novel or story, pulp fiction or
not. It isn't as simple as saying that you're looking out in the world
and wondering if people are going to like this or dislike that.
Fundamentally, writer's write for themselves. Sales figures emerge as
simple confirmations that the choices you made have been good ones, that
you have created a plot and characters that appeal to other people and
not just to yourself.
Spillane's prose in I, the Jury is derivative of his model,
Carroll John Daly, but it is much more compressed and smooth. The early
1950s aesthetic of "smooth and fast" was almost certainly derived from
Spillane's novels. Daly's prose is often jumbled and tends to go off on
tangents. Spillane's sentences flow straight through the paragraph like
a bullet out of a gun. James Elroy is the writer today who is usually
associated with that type of writing. But Elroy's prose is often so
terse as to seem expressionistic. Spillane writes with force but also
with a great deal of clarity -- it "flows" as an old poet once said.
Next to other writers of his generation, such as Frank Kane, Spillane's
prose is noticeably superior. He isn't Chandler, of course, he doesn't
go off into those "heavenly lengths" that Chandler could put out on a
page, and he isn't as elegant as later Hammett. Nevertheless, I wouldn't
hesitate to say that in his own right that Spillane was a "master
stylist" as well -- if I didn't think he'd crack me across the jaw for
Since this is a review (in spite of its essay-type features) I would be
amiss if I didn't quote a few examples. But before I quote Spillane, let
me set the stage a bit and give examples of two earlier styles.
This first is from The Snarl of the Beast by Carroll John Daly.
"If he had swung with the gun I'd of plugged him for sure. But he
didn't. Just his head was turning, in slow sharp jerks, like the
mechanical store-window figures at Christmas time. Maybe he saw me --
maybe he didn't. It doesn't matter. One look I got of his thick lips,
flat nose, and small, mean little eyes. Then I jumped forward and struck
-- not frantically or hurriedly, with fear of my life if I missed. I
wouldn't miss; I knew that. It was all old stuff to me. Just one
question only. How would he fall, and could I catch him before he and
the can clattered into the stone alley, warning the lurking figure
within who was making so free with my library?"
This prose has an odd, jerky, dream-like quality to it which matches
perfectly the rather paranoid world that Daly creates in his book. But
that's pretty much the style in every Daly story, regardless.
This next one is from Raymond Chandler, the incomparable Farewell, My
"Beyond the electroliers, beyond the beat and toot of the small sidewalk
cars, beyond the smell of hot fat and popcorn and the shrill children
and the barkers in the peep shows, beyond everything but the smell of
the ocean and the suddenly clear line of the shore and the creaming fall
of the waves into the pebbled spume. I walked almost alone now. The
noises died behind me, the hot dishonest light became a fumbling glare.
The lightless finger of a black pier jutted seaward into the dark.
This would be the one. I turned to go out on it."
Drop dead gorgeous. No doubt about it. Passages like that in Chandler
almost make me want to drop the pen in a waste basket, kick it over, put
on my jacket and head down to the nearest bar for about ten good stiff
ones. That being said, and all "heavenly lengths" put aside, you will
notice that not much plot is advanced in all of it. That's about a
hundred words to say that a private-eye approaches a pier at night,
decides that it's the right one, and decides to go out on it.
Now let's take an example from Spillane and I, the Jury:
"It was a fine day. The sun was warm and the streets full of kids making
a racket like a pack of squirrels. I drove to the corner and stopped in
a cigar store where I put in a call to Charlotte's office. She wasn't
there, but her secretary had been told to tell me that if I called,
I could find her in Central Park on the Fifth Avenue side near 68th
Street. ....I drove in from the cutoff on Central Park West and drove
all around the place, circling toward Fifth. When I came out I parked on
67th and walked back to the park. She wasn't on any of the benches, so
I hopped the fence and cut across the grass to the inside walk. The day
had brought out a million strollers, it seemed like. Private nurses in
tricky rigs went by with a toddler at their heels, and more than once
I got the eye."
The sun and the kids and the nurses checking out Mike's handsome mug
aside, this is pretty much pure narrative at the service of the story.
Nevertheless there are squirrels and there are nurses; Spillane doesn't
avoid that kind of thing. He just doesn't make it too long or too
complicated. The entire passage (the above constitutes two complete
paragraphs) has a very clean flow to it and is totally seamless. The
prose flows and the plot develops simultaneously. No big deal. Except
that it is a big deal. That kind of thing isn't easy, especially when
you consider that Spillane claimed (and you have to wonder about this,
really) that he didn't make any revisions to his text. This is in fact
"bullet straight" prose, and Spillane was a guy who hit what he aimed
at. And if you do like and want the more introspective kind of thing
Spillane can do that kind of thing too, and in the last chapter he does
it almost as good as anybody.
This fiction follows the "serial-type" plotting developed earlier by
Daly and Hammett and others. Elmore Leonard commented that Spillane was
"perhaps the best plotter of them all." It must be remembered, though,
that in context the hardboiled detective novel in America is not the
Golden Age plots of Agatha Christie. These are primarily detective
stories, not mystery stories. The emphasis is on the action, with the
private-eye pushing himself through situations and various people until
the whole thing get's worked out. Hardboiled fiction is generally
criticised in a negative aspect when put beside Golden Age or other
types of plotting. Even Raymond Chandler was criticised by some for
"weak" plots. Just say to yourself "this is a detective story, not a
mystery story" about fifty times and you'll soon get the idea.
Nevertheless the novel does have a variant of the classic "locked room"
mystery come in toward the end of the novel, which was a pretty gutsy
thing for a first-time writer to attempt.
It was the "non-legal" aspect of the plot that caused the biggest buzz
when I, the Jury was first published, and it continues to be
debated not only about that particular book but with regard to the
entire Mike Hammer series. As was mentioned above, this is primarily due
to the influence of earlier hardboiled fiction such as Daly or even
early Hammett. The only difference being perhaps that earlier audiences
who were reading hardboiled fiction in the twenties and early thirties
were much more used to the idea of some sort of mid-way line between the
law and criminals due to prohibition and the presence of organized
crime, a time in which even the FBI most always had to take the middle
road between criminals and corrupt police departments. But there was
plenty of that still around in Spillane's day as well, a fact that the
public recognized. Spillane continued a tradition in the hardboiled
field. He simply extended it to his own day, with no apologies. Thus
I think that much of the stir is due to lack of context. The characters
of The Lord of the Rings didn't have a judge and jury sitting off
to the side either, not to mention most of Steven Segal's movies today
(which, strangely, most of the public seems to have no problem with).
There are also a few other things about the novel which we could consider
politically incorrect today. There's a bit of racism and a lot of homophobia.
Spillane was about as evolved on these issues as the average person of his
time. That isn't an excuse. I'm merely putting the book in context.
There is some humor in the book, but it tends to be of the high-school
locker room or prank phone-call variety. At one point Hammer drops a
pitcher of water onto "a couple of pansies" fighting below his window,
claiming "it was a pretty good gag" and got a howl from the onlookers.
I didn't exactly howl. Not my type of humor, I guess. Nevertheless I get
the feeling that if I had attended a party and ran into Mickey Spillane
and we stood there and talked, that he would be a lot more liberal with
the humor, and that I would have enjoyed talking with him -- certain
topics avoided, of course.
Since we're in the general neighborhood, and since this is proving to be
a rather long essay anyway ("What the hell, might as well"), I would
like to broach the topic of humor in hard-boiled detective fiction. Or
more precisely, of how little of it there is in the genre. Chandler is
of course known for his dry wit, a humor that often reflects a kind of
tragic irony. But other than Chandler, humor in hard-boiled fiction
seems to be purposely avoided. Perhaps the idea was that humor had no
place in the mean-streets world of the private-eye novel. My personal
view is that humor and toughness (or you might say tragedy) are not only
not incompatible, but often emerge as the Janus-head of life. As my own
private-eye says at one point, "The world is nuts. You gotta laugh at it
sometimes or you'll go crazy." I would also say here that there is a lot
of post-1955 hard-boiled fiction that is unknown to me, and that the
humor situation may have changed a bit recently.
There is a duality with regard to sex and love in the book that was
reflective of the time as well. Hammer has no real trouble having sex
with Mary Bellemy, a rich socialite and so-called "nymphomaniac." And in
fact he has sex with her for the second time off in a woods and only
about a hundred yards from where Charlotte Manning is sitting, Charlotte
being his real love interest in the book. "I couldn't push her away" he
says. But with regard to Charlotte, he repeatedly pushes off her
advances once they become serious, wanting to wait for marriage. This is
a variant on the "bad girls do, good girls don't" sexual attitude common
then, but the interesting thing here is that it is Mike Hammer who has
the attitude, not Charlotte. For Hammer, if you care about a girl you
treat her right, and treating a woman right means taking her to the
altar first. Which brings us back to the duality I spoke of, and we come
full circle. This exasperating duality wouldn't last much longer. The seeds
were in a sense already sown by the 1950s, and the 1970s sexual revolution
would make the duality disappear for a while.
Somebody recently asked me about Spillane and this book, about what the
writing was like and how long the book was and of whether it was any
good or not. Not everybody these days has time to read War and
Peace or the complete Remembrance of Things Past by Proust.
Which I find kind of sad in a way, but that's the nature of our times.
What I can say is that this novel is 160 pages long in 9-point type.
Which from what I've seen is about 30 pages or so shorter than an
average peeper novel of that time period. In any case, you could read
four entire Spillane novels for only one massive new Steven King
novel. Now that's a 4:1 reading-pleasure ratio. I might be a
little bit prejudiced, but I would have to go with the odds. (I hope
that you are laughing at this, Mickey.) For if nothing else the Spillane
novels are entertainment. They're a fun read, even if you do sometimes
find yourself grimacing through certain passages. As for how good
it is, my own view is that it is good, very good, five guns out of five
on the P.M.P.I. rating system. It's a classic, plain and simple. The
opening will grab you by the collar and pull you through all the
following pages all the way up to its notorious finale.
Getting back to that, Spillane pretty much gives you an idea of what
Mike Hammer is going to do from the get-go. But let's put it this way,
given the set-up, the vicious killing of an old army pal, you'd pretty
much have to be Jesus Christ himself not to at least take a slug at the
scum who killed your friend. Nevertheless there are some additional
motivational aspects at work by the end of the novel that kind of put a
little kink in things (much like the ending of The Maltese Falcon,
in fact). Nothing is ever as easy as it seems -- not even revenge.
As far as going beyond that, the notorious "judge and jury" aspect at
the end of the novel is not quite as straight forward as it seems, either.
It's easy for a writer to design some sort of confrontational situation
where the culprit gets what they deserve anyway, all perfectly legit. In
fact we've seen it a million times in novels and movies: The hero gets the
drop on the bad guy, but the bad guy is stupid enough to go for the gun
anyway and the hero is forced to shoot -- "Self-defense." What is usually
missed in commentary about this book is that Spillane really does use that
kind of convention at the end, sworn revenge or not. The culprit is shot
just as they are about to go for a gun. Of course, the key phrase in that
is "just about to", and Hammer could have pistol-whipped the culprit with
his .45 and called the police if he had wanted to. But he doesn't, of
course. Because he's getting even for a friend. Because the culprit has
already killed a half dozen people. Because he's Mike Hammer and in Mike
Hammer's world bad people don't get off easy.
Plot aside, the last chapter has some simply excellent writing --
meditative, forceful, and ultimately surprising: The slow disrobing of
Spillane created something. I believe he created something lasting and
fundamentally positive in the world. He wasn't Ghandi and he wasn't
Martin Luther King. But if nothing else he entertained one hell of a lot
of people. And he seems to have given us a lot to think about as well --
what justice is and how it may or may not be served or of how the law
may or may not always reflect what we believe on a personal level to be
just. And those are questions that can never be answered finally, but
should be asked continually.
In any case, I think that Mickey is probably out flying somewhere in
that Orion nebulae right now. Maybe he'll think about us, now and then.
But I hope not too often -- he deserves a nice vacation.
P.M.P.I. RATING (OUT OF FIVE)