Monday, September 15, 2014

Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly

Kiss Me, Deadly appeared in 1952 and was the sixth of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, and it was the first private eye novel to make the New York Times bestseller list. According to wikipedia as of 1980 seven out of the top fifteen all-time US fiction best-sellers were by Mickey Spillane.

This time Mike Hammer finds himself facing a truly formidable challenge as he takes on organised crime. No sane man would try to wage a one-man war against the Mob. That might just be Hammer’s one big advantage - organised crime has become so entrenched and wields so much political influence that they have started to see themselves as being untouchable. They just aren’t prepared for the idea that somebody would actually take them on, especially someone like Hammer who isn’t overly worried about legal niceties.

It all starts when a blonde jumps out in front of Mike’s car. He’s a bit annoyed at first but she’s obviously so scared and out-of-control that he doesn’t have much choice but to give her a ride. Then they encounter a police roadblock. Mike isn’t exactly surprised to discover she’s on the run but the attitude of the cops irritates him so he tells them the woman is his wife. They get through the roadblock without any grief but their troubles have just begun. It soon becomes obvious that other people besides the police are after the blonde, and these other people play rough. Real rough.

The woman has escaped from a sanitarium but naturally it’s a bit more complicated than that. In fact it’s a lot more complicated than that. She was going to be the star prosecution witness against very very big-time mobsters. 

Now Mike has a wrecked car and no blonde and can consider himself very lucky indeed to be still alive. And there are some guys from the FBI who want to talk to him real bad. Mike has blundered into something unimaginably big and the Feds don’t want him involved. They are so determined to keep him out of this thing that they have his private investigator’s licence temporarily suspended and they even take his gun away from him.

You might think this would cramp Hammer’s style, and you might think that at the very least it would reduce the body count in this particular adventure. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. They’ve taken Mike’s gun away from him but they haven’t taken his fists! And when Mike is really mad (as he most definitely is now) he’s even more dangerous without a gun.

The more Mike realises the extent of the odds against him the more he likes it. This is a chance to strike a blow against evil on the grand scale. The mysterious blonde was part of something big. She had information that the Mob wanted very badly indeed. But what was this information she had? Mike figures out that there is something that has gone missing and the people who want to recover this item will go to any lengths to do so. It’s something that represents a great deal of money, but also a great deal of power.

If you’re only familiar with Robert Aldrich’s 1955 movie version then it needs to be said up front that the movie doesn’t have a huge amount in common with the book. Some plot elements were retained as was the idea of an immensely valuable something that everybody wants to get their hands on. The whole flavour of the movie is however radically different compared to the book. The movie really was more of an anti-Spillane movie than an actual Spillane movie. The movie is cynical and ironic and presents Mike Hammer as little more than a thug. Anyone who has actually read Spillane knows that Spillane’s Mike Hammer is no thug. He’s a tough guy and he’s prepared to use a great deal of violence but he’s also a spiritual descendent of Philip Marlowe. In his own way and in his very different style he is as much of a knight-errant as Marlowe. Hammer has a very definite moral code and he lives by it. He might not worry about bending the law but he will never ever break his own moral code. 

Spillane had no great reputation as a literary stylist but his writing is energetic and direct and at times quite effectively atmospheric. Spillane did for mystery writing what Ian Fleming would do a few years later for spy fiction - he upped the level of sex and violence and added a sense of rawness and urgency. The one thing for which critics could never forgive Spillane was that he sold 225 million books. Spillane started his writing career in comic books and Mike Hammer was initially intended as a comic book hero.

While Spillane emphasised action he was unwilling to jettison the basic structure of the mystery novel. Kiss Me, Deadly is not a whodunit but there is certainly a mystery that has to be unravelled.

Kiss Me, Deadly is vintage Spillane. Highly recommended.

I've also reviewed earlier Mike Hammer novels such as One Lonely Night (which has spy thriller elements) and My Gun Is Quick.

1 comment:

  1. Disagree with dfordom. Hammer is no knight errant. He's a man who takes the law into his own hands, in the service of justice as he sees it, which is heavy-handed obvious morality 1950's style. His is not the code of a "knight errant." The police, incredibly, let Hammer go his own way. No officer, of course, on a poilce force, especially the NYPD, would allow such a loose cannon as Mike Hammer.

    The action is sometimes well managed, although more attention seems to be paid to lighting and smoking cigarettes than to the gritty facts of criminal machinations. As a result, smoking Luckies has more reality than the references to the Mafia (does Spillane know anything about this organization?)

    As far as a mystery goes, the plot is a snarl. It sort of comes together when Hammer chases after missing drugs and finds them—after following an improbable riddle-mystery clue inexplicably left for him. In the final twist, a very minor character, one not even on stage for any of the book although he is mentioned, turns out to be the head of a Mafia drug smuggling operation. That is simply ludicrous. It's like a drawing room mystery of the 1930's. An identity switch at the end (Chapter 13) is gratuitously introduced for the sake of surprise. Of course, Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie do this sometimes too, and even Chandler, notwithstanding his cavils about "The Red House Mystery," tries this in "The Little Sister." But those works are not intended to be noir fiction. In "Kiss Me Deadly" such a tacked-on switcheroo is utterly out of place.

    The violent texture throughout gives the book surface unity. Here again there are problems. No one could possibly kill as many people as Hammer does in this one book and expect to escape unscathed, even if the ones he murders are heightened examples of evil. Committing these murders doesn't seem to bother Hammer, either; that also adds to the unreality of this story which is, one feels, meant to persuade the reader that it is about Mafioso and drug smuggling. Predictably, although Hammer keeps swearing eternal love to his dream girl Velda, all the other women in the story are panting sexpots eager to attach themselves to the (aging?) Mike Hammer.

    More could be said by way of confusions and absurdities. The book is best enjoyed for its intentions (and the cover), not for its writing. This is the first Mickey Spillane book I have read, and it is most likely the last one too.