First-rate second-rate writer

Spillane

Wham! The book socked me right where it does the most good.

“What’s this?” I thought as my brains came to their senses, “Mickey Spillane as a literary author?”

I could hardly shake the fuzz from my credulity.

It isn’t exactly a prestigious Library of America anthology, but the Mike Hammer detective novels from the 1950s and ’60s have been collected by New American Library, three to a volume. The first, the Mike Hammer Collection, Vol. 1 contains I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick and Vengeance is Mine. Volume 2 contains One Lonely Night, The Big Kill and, Spillane’s magnum opus, Kiss Me, Deadly. The third volume comprises The Girl Hunters, The Snake and The Twisted Thing.

And while Library of America, with its acid-free paper and navy fabric bindings has already begun reprinting the more respectable Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, it will probably be a while before they acknowledge Spillane. It’s hard to think of Spillane in literary terms: The books practically define “pulp” as a genre. Yet, it turns out that the literary qualities of the books far outweigh their slender ambition.

The violent stories and their stereotyped characters are pure cliché: The tough gumshoe, the vinegar-mouthed secretary with the unspoken crush on her boss, the harried pal at the precinct office. These were commonplaces of the genre before Spillane changed his first typewriter ribbon.

But there is something about the prose they come packaged in, something fresh as a slap on the cheek:

“The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the rug and my gun was in his hand.”

Or: “There were two bums down at one end of the counter taking their time about finishing a ten-cent bowl of soup; making the most out of the free crackers and catsup in front of them. Halfway down a drunk concentrated between his plate of eggs and hanging on to the stool to keep from falling off the world. Evidently he was down to his last buck, for all his pockets had been turned inside out to locate the lone bill that was putting a roof on his load.”

One shouldn’t overstate the case. Spillane is no James Joyce, but looking back from the vantage of half a century, we can see the Modernism in his sleek style. The story almost doesn’t matter: They are all cut from the same bolt of blue serge. But the manner of the telling — the choice of the bon mot, the clarity of emotional drive in the prose — these tell of a stylist, not a hack.

More than Kerouac, Spillane speaks to the underside of the Eisenhower years. Vets who had come back from Europe knew they had done unspeakable things for the greater good. It was something they didn’t talk about.

Spillane put that undercurrent into print. His Mike Hammer — left as undescribed as Everyman — uses the methods of evil to perpetrate justice. Still, it is the words, spare as Hemingway and direct as Homer — that make Spillane a memorable writer.

I would venture to assert that Spillane has had more effect on writers his better than any other. Reading Spillane is a postgraduate course in using verbs that have punch, in creating a sense of here-and-now, of relating a story through a sensibility.

Perhaps if Mickey Spillane had tried his hand at a better book he would have failed; perhaps he has no interest in anything but the process: those word middens toppling out of the page.

But these reprinted classics prove that Mickey Spillane is a first-rate second rate writer. Maybe the best.

1 comment
  1. agree, LOA seems to be wandering around in search of itself these days. Look for Fifty Shades of whatever in lovely hardcover/acid free paper/red ribbon and an intro by T.S. Eliot.

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