Mickey Spillane, who died earlier this week, was a much better writer than the mainstream critics gave him credit for being. As is well known, his books sold by the millions, and he was the best-selling mystery writer ever in the hardboiled school. The AP story on Spillane’s life and works provides a good introduction to the man and his most famous creation, the tough detective Mike Hammer.
Spillane’s books were definitely not intellectuals’ favorites, but they had much good in them. The stories in the best of his novels are taut, plausible though melodramatic, and involving. His prose was much better than critics gave him credit for—what they claimed to like in Hemingway and James M. Cain, they despised in Spillane. Spillane took after the first hardboiled writer, Carroll John Daly, whom critics likewise disparaged for the evident right-of-center political views in his works (although, as in Spillane’s case, they focused their complaints on a "sledgehammer" writing style, which is no more tru of Daly than of most hardboiled writers). Spillane’s characterizations were largely just functional, not the kind of morally ambiguous kinds the critics have preferred since World War II. But the characters did spring to life on the page, and the carried the stories well. The stories were what fascinated readers, and Spillane was a born storyteller.
Critics hated him, as is well known. He was unabashedly conservative in the pre-Reagan era when political conservatism was socially and culturally anathema. His books told stories in which the hero was a real hero and the villains were real villains. Nonetheless, it is not true that Spillane divided the world strictly into black and white, good and evil. The backgrounds of his books, including the subsidiary characters, suggest that behind the central conflict there exists a world of basically unheroic people just trying to muddle through life. And there is nothing to suggest that Spillane did not see the moral ambiguity of Mike Hammer’s methods. Hammer was a rough guy, the postwar equivalent of Carroll John Daly’s detectives such as Race Williams and Satan Hall. In Spillane’s books it was perfectly clear that Mike Hammer did things conventional heroes would never have considered. But Spillane was all about results, and if you’re on the right side, he suggests, the right thing to do is whatever will get the job done. Sometimes, Spillane recognizes, the situation is so dire that moral niceties are not an option. That notion certainly resonated with Cold War U.S. audiences.
The greatly estimable Joseph Bottum, writing in First Things, acknowledges that Spillane is likeable for his political positions, but Bottum sees the author’s works as distinctly objectionable due to the prevalence of sex and violence. Dr. Bottum goes right to the heart of the matter when he notes that
[Y]our skin starts to crawl when [Mike Hammer’s] solution to a female Communist is to rip off her dress and beat her, drooling over the sight of “a naked woman and a leather belt.” (It’s unnecessary effort. She had already been converted to democratic capitalism by her first encounter with Hammer—on a bear-skin rug, no less.) And I’d just as soon not know exactly what is going on with the transvestite Juno, the homme fatale of Vengeance Is Mine.
It’s finally just too creepy and silly to be worth the effort.
Dr. Bottum is right: Spillane’s works are truly creepy in this way. However, in assessing the works of writers like Spillane, it is urgently important to recognize that these tales are romances, not realistic novels; they take reality and exaggerate bits of it up to a level of symbolic importance. In addition, we have to remember that an author is not his characters, and that a little distance between story and reality must be acknowledged. That is to say, we knew perfectly well that in Spillane’s personal life he was nothing like Mike Hammer, and that therefore he was not advocating Hammer’s way of life as a practical matter or some political program.
Spillane’s stories work on a symbolic level, as do all romances. What Spillane was clearly trying to achieve in his tales was twofold: a whacking great story (mission accomplished) and a means of pointing out that there are truly dangerous enemies out there (which was an open question in the ’50s and ’60s though it hardly should have been) and that only a concerted, aggressive effort to stamp them out could hope to succeed (mission likewise accomplished in the Spillane stories).
No one reading a Spillane novel could conceivably believe that he was advocating that female Communists be raped or male gangsters and commies be cut to pieces. But what was unmistakeable was that these people were implacably antagonistic to the reader’s way of life. Spillane can be faulted for a pornographic expression of sex and violence in his works, but they are, after all, well within the realm of current-day standards. What appalls in Spillane’s works is not so much the events themselves as it is Mike Hammer’s cold-hearted attitude toward his enemies. Dr. Bottum quotes the famous ending of I, the Jury:
His 1949 I, the Jury sold five million copies in its first paperback edition—and ended with detective Mike Hammer shooting the love of his life because she had killed his partner. “‘How c-could you?’ she gasped. I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in. ‘It was easy,’ I said.”
Good question, provocative answer, as Dr. Bottum’s troubling to quote it illustrates. It certainly must make any reasonably sensible person stop and think a bit. As this quote suggests, when seen on the symbolic level Spillane’s romances are both enjoyable and morrally interesting. One can quarrel with his means, but Spillane certainly succeeded in his goal of suggesting that the threats to the traditional American way of life in the 1950s were real and required a serious response.
Was that something important that needed to be said? Probably. Was Spillane any more subtle than a flying ax? Probably not. But do his works still have power and interest beyond the sex and violence? Certainly.
Mickey Spillane didn’t care what critics thought, and he was right not to care. He was a storyteller, and a fine one indeed.