Friday, September 9, 2016

Mickey Spillane’s One Lonely Night

One Lonely Night was the fourth of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. It was published in 1951.

This time Mike is up against nothing less than a communist conspiracy on the grand scale. The story starts on a bridge at night with a frightened woman and a cold-blooded killer. Mike Hammer just happens to be there and as you might expect the encounter ends in death, in fact more than one death but one of these deaths does not follow the expected pattern. Curiously enough Mike finds two green cards at the scene. The cards are cut off at the corners in an odd way.

Mike’s old friend Captain Pat Chambers of the Homicide Squad is very interested indeed in these green cards. He knows what they mean. They’re used by the Communist Party as a means of identification. If you try to get into a Party meeting and your green card is not cut in the correct way you won’t get in (and you might well suffer rather more serious consequences). It’s not at all clear to Mike how these cards fit in with the incident on the bridge but he’s determined to find out.

Mike has stumbled into something really big. It involves not only communists but an escaped madman, an MVD assassin, a crusading politician and of course lots more killings. Mike is happy to get some help from Pat Chambers but he realises that this is a situation in which the police  are so hamstrung that he will mostly have to play a lone hand. He will naturally get some help from his faithful secretary Velda. Velda is in fact a good deal more than just a secretary. She has a Private Investigator’s Licence of her own and she has a gun licence and she most certainly knows how to use a gun (and she is prepared to use it when she has to).

The style is typical Spillane. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste. You either like the hardboiled school or you don’t and you either like Spillane’s distinctive approach to hardboiled crime or you don’t. Personally I quite enjoy his approach. Spillane started his writing career on comic books and his crime novels have the somewhat cinematic and wham-bang style of comics. 

There’s a great deal of violence and a fair amount of sex. At the time the sex and violence in his books were considered to be very shocking indeed. By today’s standards the violence really isn’t excessively gruesome and the sex is fairly tame.

Fortunately the effectiveness of Spillane’s style doesn’t depend entirely on the shock value of the sex and violence. There’s a manic energy to the writing and there’s real passion. There’s even at times a kind of hardboiled lyricism. There’s certainly plenty of wonderfully atmospheric writing. 

Mike Hammer is not an amoral thug. He isn’t bothered by the idea of killing people, as long as they’re people who deserve killing. He is very bothered indeed when innocent people get caught up in crime. He has a crusading zeal which certainly has elements of vigilante justice to it but in his own way he’s a very moral man. It’s just that in the somewhat confused and disillusioned postwar world a crusader has to get his hands dirty.

One Lonely Night is exceptionally interesting for the light it sheds on that immediate postwar world. Mike is a veteran and he’s proud of his wartime military service. His inclination is to see things in a fairly black-and-white way. To Mike communists are the bad guys and they’re a threat to American democracy and American democracy is self-evidently a good thing. The interesting thing though is that Mike despises politicians and considers them to be a bunch of worthless crooks. His views on this subject are echoed by  both Pat Chambers and by Velda. Velda describes politicians as slime. While Mike’s faith in America and democracy remains unshakeable he is certainly aware that all is not well in postwar America.

What distinguishes this book from so much crime fiction of the 1970s and later is the lack of cynicism or despair or nihilism. If society has its problems then Mike Hammer believes the answer is to do something about those problems. If there’s a conflict between good and evil then the answer is to fight for good. Mike has no illusions about what he’s up against but he is confident that a good man armed with a good reliable .45 automatic can overcome a great deal of evil.

This is a slightly more introspective Mike Hammer. The reason he’s walking alone on a bridge at night is that he’s brooding after a judge described him as a vicious cold-blooded killer. The judge was sore because there wasn’t a damned thing he could do since it was clearly a case of self-defence but Mike starts wondering if maybe he is a bit too fond of killing. If this is true then he has to figure out what to do about it and that provides the book’s main theme.

It goes without saying that the political incorrectness level in this novel is off the scale, but then if you demand political correctness in books and you’re reading Mickey Spillane you may have picked the wrong author!

If you’re not bothered about political correctness there’s plenty to enjoy in One Lonely Night. It’s a roller-coaster ride of action and mayhem done in inimitable Mickey Spillane style. If you’ve liked other Spillane books you’ll like this one. If you’ve hated other Spillane books you’ll hate this one. If you haven’t read any Spillane then My Gun Is Quick or Kiss Me, Deadly might be better places to start, being more typical Mike Hammer books. One Lonely Night is good but it’s more spy thriller than mystery thriller. It’s still recommended for those who appreciate Spillane (and that definitely includes me).

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