This is Noir as it is in the popular imagination. Mickey Spillane is probably responsible for Noir as everyone thinks about it – overwrought private eye narrative with lots of metaphors? Snappy hardboiled dialogue? A tough guy hero who uses his guns and fists as much as his brains? A seething, corrupt metropolis full of sin? Spillane’s Mike Hammer detective stories have it all. I think that there’s a direct link from Mike Hammer to Frank Miller. They both have the same tense, exciting narration, Noir sensibilities, and even the same questionable political ideals behind their writing. Spillane’s stories still hold up as high, pulpy entertainment. Whenever anyone wants to do a parody of Noir, they’re probably imitating Spillane rather than Hammett or Chandler.
Spillane was an interesting guy, and probably as tough as his creation. He worked a variety of odd jobs in his youth, served as a fighter pilot in WWII, and wrote for comics before finding success with Mike Hammer. He started the Mike Hammer mysteries in 1947 and pumped out novels until even after his death, with several being completed and published posthumously by the great Max Allan Collins.
I read a couple anthologies of Mike Hammer novels and seriously enjoyed them. Nobody’s going to mistake them for fine literature, but they’ve got a breakneck pace, tons of action, and even a surprising bit of depth. Hammer is a tough as nails private eye in post-war New York. He’s a hulking lump of all-American muscle and violence, and his stories usually end with him finding some guilty party and destroying them. Femme fatales tempt him and may get away with it, but they always get their comeuppance in the end. He’s also teamed up with Velda, his secretary who is just as tough as he is. A score for women’s rights? Probably not, but it’s a nice touch. Hammer is a WWII veteran, and often talks about how the war changed him into a killer. It’s something you wouldn’t expect to find in a popular novel written in the Post-War Era and one of the reasons why Mike Hammer is the inspiration for Mort Candle in my Stein and Candle Detective Agency series (the other being the obvious Mike Hammer meets Hammer Horror play on words).
However, the stories are quite dated to a modern eye. Spillane’s got your ‘comic relief’ Black caricatures, your frequent homophobic comments about ‘Pansies,’ and an overall anti-liberal viewpoint that would be at home in a Dirty Harry movie. It’s no wonder that Ayn Rand was a fan of his! A lot of the stories themselves are products of the time. One Lonely Night pits Hammer against sadistic Soviet spies, who he massacres with a tommy gun. Another novel features the femme fatale at the end being revealed as a cross-dressing man. It’s no wonder that Spillane and Frank Miller are soul mates. I feel that they both had the same reaction to the 9/11 Attacks as well. The final Mike Hammer novel, The Goliath Bone, features Spillane’s detective taking on Al-Qaida. While there’s some patriotic moments of him gunning down would-be terrorists, there’s also the fear expressed by the characters that the terrorists can strike again at any time and there’s nothing we can really do to protect ourselves – along with Hammer’s feelings that he’s an old man who can’t understand life in the modern world. That’s a fitting ending to Hammer’s career, I think.
Recommended Reading: There’s a ton of Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer books, but I think that I, The Jury – the first one – is a great example of the genre. Hammer is hired to solve the murder of one of his war buddies and it pits him against an evil femme fatale, who he takes on in an appropriately crazy climax. One Lonely Night is pretty good too, especially with the tommy gun-blasting ending, but I think that I, The Jury is a good place to start.
Recommended Viewing: the 1955 Kiss Me Deadly is supposed to be one of the greatest Noir films ever – but I, um, haven’t seen it. I guess I’ll recommend the Sin City film adaptation. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s Noir classic (I’ve got another movie to recommend when I get to Frank Miller in this feature), which means that it captures the overwrought narration of Mike Hammer perfectly. It’s even filmed in nifty black-and-white! It’s probably pretty silly, if you think about it for too long, but for Mickey Spillane, that’s all part of the charm.