The Prince of Pulp

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Writer Mickey Spillane poses on location for the "The Girl Hunters" in New York in this July 1963 portrait

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In fact, Mike loves to hate, to beat, to kill. From Mi>Vengeance Is Mine!: "I loved to shoot killers. I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do than shoot a killer and watch his blood trace a slimy path across the floor." The fights he gets into are manuals for barroom brawlers. Here's a how-to from My Gun Is Quick: "I jammed four big, stiff fingers into his gut right above the navel and he snapped shut like a jackknife. I opened him up again with an openhanded slap that left a blush across his mouth that was going to stay for a while." Mike unholsters his .45 and "just for effect I stuck it up against his forehead and thumbed back the hammer. It made a sharp click in the silence."

Anything short of execution is excusable. "I didn't kill him," he says after one encounter. "All I did was shoot him in the leg a little bit." (In Hammer's world, that's a towel slap.) Sometimes he imagines the awful-delicious retribution. "If anything happened to Velda I'd tear the guts out of some son-of-a-bitch!" he muses in One Lonely Night. "I'd nail him to a wall and take his skin off him in inch-wide strips!" Other times, he keeps the violence strictly verbal, on the level of threat: "It's not easy to talk when you've just choked on your own teeth." And once in a while he gets to do it: "I only gave him a second to realize what it was like to die then I blew the expression clean off his face."


In the Collins doc, Spillane defends the pugnacity of his alter ego (alter libido, more likely). "If anybody kicks my cat," he explains, "I'm gonna whack him on the ear, see? It's somewhat like kickin' his [Hammer's]cat, so to speak." Actually, it's more like someone's saying, "That's not much of a cat you got," and Mike pulls the guy's guts through his nose. In Spillane, nearly every charged conversation between males escalates pronto into a fight. Hammer hits first. And, as J. Kenneth Van Dover notes in his astute, fairly critical Murder in the Millions (about Gardner, Hammett and Fleming), Hammer's pugilistic repertoire relies as much on his knees and his feet as on his fists. That's sensible, since the hand is more vulnerable to breaking. But it's also, in the Marquis of Queensberry sense that defined detective-story fights before Spillane, dirty dealing.

The tough guy before whom all other tough guys go soft, Hammer is also an adolescent boy's dream of the total he-man package. He's also a magnet for all comers. Gangsters and glamorous women fall at Mike's feet, from the impact of his blows or the surly machismo of his swagger. Of course there's a darker view of this unchecked brutality, this out-lawman with a feudal ethical code. That's that Hammer is a bully with a grudge — a one-man fascist state, and I don't mean Italy.

One thing that estranged Spillane from the literati was their disdain for the politics of his books. No question, he was right-wing. Each novel had a different conspiracy for Hammer to expose: drugs in I, the Jury, the call-girl racket in My Gun Is Quick, a blackmail ring in Vengeance Is Mine!, illegal gambling in The Big Kill, the Mafia in Kiss Me. Deadly. But it was the enemy in One Lonely Night — the U.S. Communist Party — and his gunning down of 100 of them, that soldered liberal horror of Spillane.

Truth is, Hammer never pretends to be a political sophisticate. "I haven't voted since they dissolved the Whig Party," he says in One Lonely Night. And his agenda is at least as much anarchist as it is fascist. He's against all the big people who prey on the little people, and has elected himself to wipe out the scourge. His tone is not so much political as Biblical — Old Testament. He's the cleansing plague.

In the first three Spillane titles, Hammer graduates from being the legal system (I the Jury) to the police force (My Gun Is Quick) to God Almighty (Vengeance Is Mine). But Mike doesn't think he's God. And the Devil he often wrestles with is himself. As the series of novels wore on, and Spillane perhaps winced at the criticism of them, Hammer occasionally goes into auto-critique mode. What has he become? What made him that way?

In One Lonely Night, Hammer is brought into court before a judge, who, Mike says, wants only to "drag my soul out where everybody could see it and slap it with another coat of black paint." The judge blames Hammer's antisocial attitude on his military service: that, as Mike paraphrases, "it took a war to show me the power of the gun and the obscene pleasure that was brutality and force, the spicy sweetness of murder sanctified by law."

Hammer is forced to agree. "There in the muck and slime of the jungle, there in the stink that hung over the beaches rising from the bodies of the dead, there in the half-light of too many dusks and dawns laced together with the crisscrossed patterns of bullets, I had gotten a taste of death and found it palatable to the extent that I could never again eat the fruits of a normal civilization.... Maybe it did happen to me over there.... Maybe I was twisted and rotten inside. Maybe I would be washed down the sewer with the rest of the rottenness sometime."

Don't think of Hammer as a cop without a badge. Think of him as a discharged, displaced soldier, perhaps with a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. As the Mick said about the men who came home from World War II, "They knew what a person's mind could do to him." Hammer's belligerence might seem neolithic to civilians, but to young men who had survived the horror of war, and knew many who didn't, his advance-guard wariness on New York's mean streets was nothing less than a life skill.


"You love hard too," a dangerous blond tells Mike before surrendering to his Neander-thrills. (And after a rough night in Kiss Me, Deadly, he says, "I slept hard." Mike does everything but think hard.) He's a hard man the ladies fall hard for.

Mike can appreciate female beauty, especially when it's coming on to him. "With her head tilted back like that she gave me the full view of her breasts. They were as alive as she was." (They shouldn't be less so.) "A statue with dark, blazing eyes and jaunty breasts that spoke of the passion that lay within." (Hmmm: jaunty and chatty.) Everyone's favorite Spillane "babe" line is this one: "She walked toward me, her hips waving a happy hello."

In those first years after the war, first base was as far as an American novelist could safely go. Spillane made the most of what little sexual license he had. Of a brief encounter with Lola in My Gun Is Quick Hammer rhapsodizes, "Her mouth was a soft bed of fire, her tongue a searching thing asking questions I had to answer greedily." In French kissing, as in all other aspects of a Hammer courtship, the woman is the aggressor. In the movies of I, the Jury and The Girl Hunters, the actor playing Hammer (Biff Elliot in the first, then Spillane himself) reclines on a couch while the female amorously advances on him.

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