For the past six weeks I have been re-reading the original six Mike Hammer novels beginning with his second novel, My Gun is Quick. Today I take a look at his very first novel, I, the Jury.
From the beginning of MontanaWriter – over three years ago now– I have tried to think and write about books and poetry here always in the light of Auden’s six characteristics of a critic. (See the introduction to Book Reviews at MonatanaWriter.)
Auden, his prologue to Dyers Hand, wrote that a critic should:
- Introduce me to authors or works of art of which I was hitherto unaware.
- Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
- Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
- Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
- Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
- Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.
I undertook re-reading and “reviewing” Mickey Spillane for the same reason that I have chosen to write about most of the poems or books that have been reviewed here: because they are works of art worth thinking and writing about.
There is an irony, of course, to quoting Auden in a review of Mickey Spillane. While Auden enjoyed reading mysteries and even wrote one of the best essays ever written about the genre, he clearly doubted the “literary merit” of the books he viewed merely as enjoyable reading for winding down at the end of a day.
Auden was a lover of “cozy” mysteries, the British kind… not the hardboiled American kind. He was most certainly not one of the many millions who made Mickey Spillane the best selling writer in the world.
Yet it needs to be said, while Auden was as great a poet and critic as any in the 20th Century, he was dead wrong in one thing: mysteries can be true literature.
Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Mickey Spillane are not merely great genre-writers, they are true artists… certainly some of the most significant literary stylists of the 20th Century.
While Chandler’s literary reputation has grown now over the years, and Ross MacDonald’s to a lesser extent, Spillane remains an artistic pariah… a greatly under-appreciated hardboiled genius.
In a five year period between 1947 and 1952, Mickey Spillane wrote six Mike Hammer novels:
- I, the Jury (1947)
- My Gun is Quick (1950)
- Vengeance is Mine! (1950)
- One Lonely Night (1951)
- The Big Kill (1951)
- Kiss Me, Deadly (1952)
Based on a character that Spillane had in mind for a comic book, Mike Hammer and Mike Hammer’s voice must have been inhabiting the dark streets of Spillane’s imagination for some time before he finally sat down in front of his Smith-Corona Super-Speed and cranked out this pulp classic.
While I, The Jury was written in just 19 days, it is clear in the opening sentences of the book that the fully-formed character of Mike Hammer that comes into the room shaking rain off of his hat is already a force of nature, one of the great literary archetypes to ever step out of the pages of a book and into the world. In language and tone, writer and detective hit us hard immediately like a punch in the gut.
Returning now to I, The Jury after having spent the last month and a half reading the other five initial Hammer books made me appreciate this literary classic all the more.
Here are the opening lines of I, the Jury.
The opening paragraphs of I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane
I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room. Nobody said a word. They stepped back politely and I could feel their eyes on me. Pat Chambers was standing by the door to the bedroom trying to steady Myrna. The girl’s body was racking with dry sobs. I walked over and put my arms around her.
“Take it easy, kid,” I told her. “Come on over here and lie down.” I led her to a studio couch that was against the far wall and sat her down. She was in pretty bad shape. One of the uniformed cops put a pillow down for her and she stretched out.
Pat motioned me over to him and pointed to the bedroom. “In there, Mike,” he said. In there. The words hit me hard. In there was my best friend lying on the floor dead. The body. Now I could call it that. Yesterday it was Jack Williams, the guy that shared the same mud bed with me through two years of warfare in the stinking slime of the jungle. Jack, the guy who said he’d give his right arm for a friend and did when he stopped a bastard of a Jap from slitting me in two. He caught the bayonet in the biceps and they amputated his arm.
Pat didn’t say a word. He let me uncover the body and feel the cold face. For the first time in my life I felt like crying. “Where did he get it, Pat?”
[Spillane, Mickey (2001-06-01). The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume I: 1 (p. 5). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.]