Psychotic Reaction

The acid noir of Mickey Spillane, 1918-2006

Spillane was dead as hell and the papers were full of it—even TheNew York Times, which called his first novel "spectacularly bad" and didn't mind reminiscing about it in his obituary. But that was still a kinder kiss goodbye than Mickey Spillane gave most of his own characters. Mike Hammer was the dirtiest of the noir detectives, a guy who would shoot someone just to punctuate a sentence, who smacked bad girls around for laughs—it was okay; they loved him for it—and who made sure his villains suffered spectacularly bad deaths on the very last page. ("There's no shame to killing an evil thing," he explains.) If Chandler wrote like a slumming angel, Spillane was a caveman at the country club, hated by every major literary critic in America. And that was okay, too—his readers loved him for it, and he once had seven of the 10 best-selling novels of all time. "You're lucky I don't write three more books," he said.

But there was more to Spillane than stubborn caveman charm. He wrote with a matter-of-fact indifference toward violence that prompted critic Anthony Boucher to recommend Spillane debut I, The Jury only as a "Gestapo training manual." Boucher wasn't wrong—he and others felt something psychotic in Spillane's first novels, an element that pushed beyond sex-and-violence pulp salesmanship into real sickness. They just never guessed how well it would age. Spillane had a hotshot mix of simplicity, velocity and brutality that Hollywood and rock & roll would rediscover 20 and 30 years later, but the first Hammer novels from the '40s and early '50s read now like acid noir: genre distorted toward insanity.

Hammer's New York City was nothing like Marlowe's Los Angeles, which was detailed down to actual street addresses. Instead, Spillane hated New York—"I'm a country boy," he said—and landed Hammer there only out of detective-story obligation. He then built his world mostly from imagination and contempt. When it rains—and it always rains, unless it is snowing—it brings "the scum flooding down the window." When Hammer hits the streets, the city watches him with "big black eyes of manhole covers steaming malevolently on every block." As he chases cases, he fights constant synesthetic confusion: he trips over smells as he climbs tenement stairs, hears static electricity jumping out from a nurse's uniform, busts into an afterhours club where the women strip in reverse—seductively clothing themselves and then tip-toeing fully dressed to the bar. In Vengeance Is Mine, he visits one of his masochistic lovers in her fleabag apartment; when he plays with the power cord on her lamp, he sees her face flicker.

"How do you spell 'synesthetic'?"
"How do you spell 'synesthetic'?"

Only violence deserves detail enough to make sense: Hammer kicks a guy and feels his teeth come out in his shoe, pops someone's rib like "a kid snapping worms," burns a burn victim to death and watches "the flames . . . ripping and tearing into the scars of other flames." Obviously, Hammer is crazy: he feels reality only when he's hurting something. He's remembered now as a tough-talking antihero, but in the original books, he was a sick man. And Spillane made sure he knew it.

The Hammer novels were noir as torture: Hammer hears music and noise and voices in his head; he feels "fire" in his brain; he sits across dinner from a beautiful women and desperately wonders why he can think only of hitting her in the mouth. He dreams only nightmares when he dreams at all and literalizes those nightmares in his waking world: "You realize that it hadn't been a bad dream after all, but something alive and terrifying instead!" He lives in one long hallucination—"unreal and painful," as he puts it—or maybe he isn't even really alive at all, condemned for the murder of his own fiancť, explaining to his newest doomed love interest that "when she died, I died too."

He sleeps the "sleep of the dead" and wakes up in a blacked-out hotel room under a black sky; he looks at his watch and his watch has stopped—the Hammer tomb world in a paragraph, detective noir set not really in New York but in hell, or just in Mike Hammer's head. Spillane conspicuously never gave Hammer a face, preferring instead to describe his character mostly as two bloody fists and a bleeding mouth. But it must have made the guy nuts: "What do I look like?" Hammer asks Lily Carver in Kiss Me, Deadly; she pushes away a "crazy, fearful" expression and says after a long while, "You look like a nice guy."

Spillane put Hammer to bed for eight years in 1952 when a drop-in visit from the Jehovah's Witnesses converted him to the religion he'd follow for the rest of his life. When he began writing again in the early '60s, he wasn't quite the same. He'd wobble between self-conscious overcompensation and transparent trend-jumping—James Bond, meet Tiger Mann!—and although he turned out to be an award-winning children's author on the side, he softened his bibliography and his reputation with less-than-necessary decades of paperback potboilers. But the original Hammers still have a vivid, feral viciousness no other writers could reproduce and still hide some of noir's darkest moments—they were an experiment in style that made obsessively literal whodunit? convention somehow obsolete. Hammer didn't solve cases—he just survived them. "It was all over now," he says. "I had found out why, I had found out how, now I knew who. The dead could stay dead forever."

 
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