In terms of commercial success Mickey Spillane was certainly one of the big guns of hardboiled and/or noir fiction. His books have sold around 225 million copies which is not to be sneezed at. But while other hardboiled writers like Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Jim Thompson and Horace McCoy have gained at least a small degree of acceptance by the literary establishment Spillane is still generally reviled. It’s not difficult to understand why, although it’s arguably something of an injustice.
The political subtext of Spillane’s books is not such as to endear him to the denizens of academia (as compared to Hammett and Chandler for instance). Spillane cannot be made politically correct. And Spillane stubbornly refuses to be cynical about the sorts of things writers are expected to be cynical about. Things like law and order. In fact his greatest crime is probably his overall lack of cynicism about American society. There’s the same passionate outrage against corruption that you find in Chandler, and Spillane certainly can’t be accused of being naïve about the seamy underside of the American Dream. But Spillane still believes that justice can prevail.
And of course there’s the question of violence. Mike Hammer might be a righteous avenger but the relish with which he exacts revenge is going to make some people uncomfortable.
Which brings us to My Gun is Quick, which came out in 1950. This was the second of the Mike Hammer novels. Surprisingly enough Spillane only published thirteen Mike Hammer books.
Hammer runs into a red-headed prostitute in a bar. He’s not interested in her professional services, he just buys her a cup of coffee and chats to her for a while. He’s tired and drained and just wants someone to talk to for a while and she’s a willing listener. In a fit of generosity that he can’t even really explain to himself (except that he’s just been paid a huge amount for a very easy job and temporarily has more money than he knows what to do with) he offers her enough money to buy some decent clothes and get a regular job.
He wouldn’t give this very minor incident a second thought except that the red-headed streetwalker turns up dead the next day. It’s none of Hammer’s business really but he just can’t stand the thought that for once he does something nice for someone and straight away they wind up dead. All the injustice of the world is suddenly crystallised in this one senseless death. And then Hammer starts to realise that the death, ascribed to a hit-run driver, doesn’t add up. It starts to look like murder.
Needless to say it doesn’t stop there. The trail leads Hammer into a world of vice and corruption and violence.
My Gun is Quick differs from most earlier hardboiled detective stories in that Mike Hammer’s quest for vengeance is very personal. He’s not just pursuing this case for the money and in fact he’d follow it up even if he wasn’t getting paid. It’s the kind of obsessive revenge story one associates more with the blood-soaked world of Jacobean tragedy or with classic western movies.
While Mike Hammer has no time for pimps or for dishonest city officials who turn a blind eye to vice rackets he’s surprisingly sympathetic and non-judgmental towards prostitutes. That’s something one doesn’t quite expect, given Spillane’s reputation.
Spillane’s style might lack the polish of Chandler’s but like Mike Hammer’s detective methods it gets the job done. It’s an exciting well-paced crime thriller even if the major plot twist isn’t difficult to guess. There’s enough energy in the writing to overcome some deficiencies in plotting.
Hammer is an old-fashioned non-PC hero and you’re either going to accept that or you’re not. If you can’t accept it you won’t like Spillane. If you can accept it there’s plenty to enjoy. It’s rough around the edges but it doesn’t pull its punches and it’s highly entertaining. I’m off to read more Mickey Spillane.