A Spillane Virgin Judges I, the Jury

I, The Jury cover, the introduction of Mike Hammer
I, The Jury, wherein the world met Mike Hammer
At the risk of losing my crime readers membership card, I have a confession to make. I’ve never read Mickey Spillane. Not that I’m unfamiliar with Spillane or his hard-nosed P.I. Mike Hammer; I’ve seen all the movies based on Hammer, including The Girl Hunters where Mickey himself played Hammer. Hmm, funny how that only happened once . . .

But, it’s never too late. So I have bought myself a vintage paperback copy of Spillane’s first Mike Hammer novel, I, The Jury and I’m about to read it like I always read—during lunch breaks at work. What follows is my daily reading diary.

Day 1:

I gently bend open the cover of my 1952 edition and am shocked to discover this is the 17th printing since I, The Jury was first published in 1947. Seventeen printings in only 5 years! Guess Spillane hit a nerve with Hammer, the tough guy not beholden to silly things like “rules” or “regulations”.

Right off the top Mickey dives in with a corpse, a crying girl and an already bitter Mike Hammer. Spillane’s famously blunt prose is evident on page one.

“The bullet went in clean, but where it came out left hole big enough to cram a fist into.”

Page 3 and Hammer has already grabbed a cop by the lapels and vowed revenge on the man who murdered his old war buddy. And his brand of justice isn’t the kind with a judge or lawyers.

“I’m going to plunk one right in his gut, and when he’s dying on the floor I may kick his teeth in.”

Yep. I’m hooked.

Day 2:

A few red flags have gone up to indicate the novel’s age. Sure there’s the mention of an automat, but more so the dialect of the “coal black” maid. Yikes. She could have a great conversation with the crows from Dumbo. 

Also on display is Hammer’s (and by inference, Spillane’s) rather narrow view of women. Mike sure does like the ladies and they all seem, in his mind anyway, to be drawn toward him with a gravity that also strips off their clothes.

At least he’s fairly honest about his sex-objectification, noting about one woman, “She could have sued me if she knew what went on in my mind.”

Breasts strain against fabric, legs are tempting and long and when Mike looks at a woman he tends to lick his lips. Makes for a vivid read, I’ll say that.

Let me say this about the 1940s: was lipstick on the collar really that much of a hazard? It seems to crop up everywhere. Why are women constantly wiping their mouths on men’s collars?

Mickey Spillane attempst to play Mike Hammer on the big screen.
Mickey Spillane as Mike Hammer
Day 3:

To be honest, I was expecting more action. The book is about the character of Hammer as much as the mystery itself. Sure Mike is interviewing suspects, hunting down leads but also taking time to let women fawn over him, let barkeeps sing his praises and continually remind us that he is capable of his own brand of justice.

A product of being the introductory book? Or just in keeping with Hammer’s vanity?

I’m also still unable to separate Hammer and Spillane in my mind. Am I being unfair to keep the Hammer as Spillane/Spillane as Hammer connection so much in the forefront? I think it was an image that Mickey himself sought to cultivate, right down to that ill-fated attempt to play Mike in the movies.

Anyway, after more womanizing and more racism the case is heating up a little.

Day 4:

Now he’s added homophobia to the mix. I’ll concede a tiny bit for the times but it doesn’t make it any more palatable.

We’ve also entered into a problem I have with a lot of detective novels—while the protagonist is hunting down clues there is quite a bit of slow motion sleuthing. Just my opinion, mind you, but there was an entire scene that tried very hard to wring suspense out of a trip to the library. You be the judge.

My other issue with cases like this one is the reset—scenes in which the clues to date are repeated in someone’s sitting room to clarify what the detective knows and doesn’t know. Could be my expectations, but Hammer seems to do this quite a bit where I thought he would be more nonstop action. 

Granted these scenes are usually book-ended with Mike nearly ravaging his current lady love, but that only gets you so far.

I have to say, not loving it at the half way point.

Day 5:

Yeah, much more talk over action than I expected. Sure, people keep taking pot shots at Mike and bodies are falling left and right, but three in a row now have happened when Hammer wasn’t around so all we see is Mike and the cops rolling up on a body that already has holes in it. Where’s the fun in that?

It seems like with so many suspects and Mike having no real clue who his killer is we are headed for a conclusion that is all: no idea, no idea—BAM!—all is revealed in a shocking and unexpected way.

Hope it goes better than the one stock character who, as soon as he came on stage, I thought Well, he’s a dead duck. Turns out, I was right. Shot in the back. Mike was nowhere around of course.

I’m sticking with it though. I do want to know who the killer is and if Mike is going to go through with his promise to blast holes in him (or her). I have my suspicions (see the aforementioned Her) One more lunch break oughta do it.

Day 6:

Done. And, yes, I saw the killer coming a long way off. It only took Hammer a nearly six page monologue to explain the whole case back to the killer before he went through with his pledge. (You can’t tell, but I’m rolling my eyes now.)

So I’ve read Mickey Spillane and I am surprisingly disappointed. 

The later chapters did provide my favorite Mike-Hammer-as-sex-god dialogue when Mike is talking with Mary, whom he has pegged as a nymphomaniac of course.

“You look like an athlete if I ever saw one.”
“What kind?” I joked.
“A bed athlete.”

Not my cup of tea
Not my cup of tea
So is it heretical to say I didn’t enjoy it? Will I be able to show my face at Bouchercon next month? It’s a personal preference of course, but so far Spillane isn’t my cup of tea. 

So you tell me? Do I keep going? Did I pick the wrong book? Does anyone agree with me?

 


Eric Beetner is an ex-musician, one time film director, and a working television editor and producer, as well as author (with JB Kohl) of the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and one really great dog. His upcoming novella Dig Two Graves will be out later this summer, along with short stories in the anthologies Pulp InkD*cked, and Grimm Tales.

Comments

  1. Jake Hinkson

    Loved this post, Beetner! I feel much the same way about Spillane, I have to say. The man could write punchy prose, no doubt about it, but his plots are more often plodding than not and his characterizations rely so heavily on stereotypes that it’s hard to enjoy even for base pulp pleasure. He was catering to so many fashionable prejudices back in the day that he’s dated in a way that Chandler and Hammet and Thompson haven’t. At least for me.

    By the way, your crack about the crows in Dumbo made me laugh so loud my wife asked me from the next room what was so funny.

  2. AJ Hayes

    Yeah to both you and Jake’s opinions. Of course Spillane is a Thirties kind of guy, writing in a Forties mode, in (for the most part) the Fifties. For his time, his style was okay and he did set the stage for the return of the hardboiled private eye. Over the years the last couple of lines in the book have stuck with me. Back then, “How could you?” “It was easy,” hit as strong strong as a punch to the dick.

  3. Eric Beetner

    Jake – glad to see I’m not alone. I agree that he is somehow more dated than those writers from two decades before.

    AJ – I agree those last lines are pretty good. There was good stuff in there, I just expected much more of it.

  4. Ron Phillips

    I have a confession. I haven’t read any of Spillaine’s work either. Thanks for saving me the time. 😉

    Nice write up.

  5. Karen Mayers

    I just read this also. Enjoyed it. I guess the title is a bit of a plot spoiler, but he was only guilty of one of the many murders in this one. Great review.

  6. Gerald So

    I’ve read a few Mike Hammer books and enjoyed them. I can’t argue with any of your points, Eric, but I don’t read Spillane for great plotting or social commentary. I appreciate how distinct Hammer was from his contemporaries who may have tried too hard to give the genre literary cred. Spillane’s strengths were atmosphere and attitude. Despite having no highfalutin notions of what he was writing, he helped sustain the genre in his own way.

  7. Colleen Collins

    What Gerald said. One of my favorite books in 2010 was THE BIG BANG, which Max Allan Collins finished for Spillane.

  8. Eric Beetner

    The Big Bang was the book that made me go back and want to read the originals. I love Collins and loved what he did with that. I’m for sure going to give Mickey another try. You don’t get to be a legend for nothin’.

  9. Max A Collins

    I, THE JURY is in many ways the weakest of the early novels, despite the famous ending. It was written in 1945 and the level of sex and violence (however tame they may seem now) was jawdropping then, and enormously influential. But the plot is convoluted and the storytelling meanders, though the subject matter remains outrageous for its time — prostitution, drugs, etc. I recently re-read Chandler and he and Marlowe are every bit as racist and misogynistic and homophobic as you find Spillane and Hammer. Live with it. Hammett’s Spade is certainly as sexist as Hammer. But Hammett and Chandler get a pass because they have long been accepted by the literary crowd. If you want to understand the popularity of Spillane and Hammett, try VENGEANCE IS MINE!, THE BIG KILL and especially ONE LONELY NIGHT. All novels date. Fucking Dickens dates. Read them in their context and get swept away.

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