The Mike Hammer Omnibus Alison & Busby, 10.99, ISBN 074900519X
The Mike Hammer Omnibus, Volume Two Alison & Busby, 10.99 ISBN 0749006307
I met Mickey Spillane when he came to London for Crime Scene 2000, and none of his books was in print, an odd fate when you consider he’s one of the biggest selling writers of all time, and Mike Hammer remains a valuable ‘brand name’, with TV and movies always playing somewhere. I interviewed him for the Daily Telegraph, and he kept going with such enthusiasm that I transcribed almost the whole thing for Crime Time, for whom I also wrote about the Crime Scene tribute. Mickey went out of print partly because times had changed and partly because publishers didn’t realise that there was more to Mike Hammer than politically incorrect sex and violence, not necessarily in that order. Though nowadays, you would have thought, sex and violence was enough, and Mickey certainly was ahead of the curve in both areas. As said in my Daily Telegraph piece, ’eat your heart out, Quentin Tarantino’.
So I applauded when A&B got his first six Hammer novels, which are probably his best work, back in print, and appreciated even more that they took the trouble to attach two useful introductions. The first volume’s was by Max Allan Collins, who also directed a fabulous documentary, ’Mike Hammer‘s Mickey Spillane‘, which received its UK premiere at that Crime Scene. The original brief reviews I did of these two books when they came out languished in Crime Time’s dank vaults, so I've approached them anew here.
Collins’ introduction reminded me that I first came to Hammer as a teenager, and the point about that is that when I was a teen his books were still considered hot stuff, not what a 13 year old should be reading. My mother always said she named me Michael because she liked Mike Hammer, and felt she had to sneak-read Mickey’s books, even though she was 19, already married and pregnant with me by then.
Those were strange times: men like my father had been made adult by war--I have a photo of my dad, just out high school, posing in his Navy uniform while in a football stance--straight from playing against Hillhouse to taking on the Nazis or the Japs. They returned to America changed, having seen both death and Paris. In his excellent introduction to the second volume, Lawrence Block reminds us that Mickey started out writing comic books, and when soldiers returned home from World War II, they were ready for the action and realism they’d known at war, but wanted it in a simpler, more direct fashion that they got, say, from Remarque.
Their world was soon shrink-wrapped in the Cold War, a permanent repression, both political and personal, running parallel to the American Dream, sort of what the Bush regime has tried to recreate over the past eight years in Washington,and which the McCains and Palins, the Robert Gateses and General Petraeuses of this world would love to perpetuate. There is a palpable sense of tension in the first three Hammer novels between the Mike Hammer who buys into this propaganda war and plugs commies with slugs of lead, and the Mickey who sees a world of feverish desires which shouldn’t be or can’t be expressed, and thus often lead to violence when they are. Those first three books were I, The Jury, My Gun Is Quick, and Vengeance Is Mine. Note the first-person pronouns in every title. They reflect the first-person prose, which drags you along kicking and screaming and enjoying the nightmare ride.
I think it was the seductiveness of the ride which attracted Robert Aldrich to Spillane, although he was appalled by the attraction of what he saw as a fascist impulse. Aldrich made a film of Kiss Me Deadly, which is included along with One Lonely Night and The Big Kill in the second omnibus. He and screenwriter Buzz Bezzerides basically deconstructed Spillane, taking the paranoid narration and the instinctive violence and distilling them into a remarkable document of Cold War angst.
Mickey, of course, hated it.
That was understandable, but he really shouldn’t have minded. Deconstruction is, in some ways, the sincerest form of flattery. Going back to the originals convinces me that Mickey had something real going: it got diluted, perhaps after he found religion, perhaps when he turned himself into a marketing tool, perhaps for some other reason. Mickey didn’t need me, or anyone else, to psychoanalyse him. He wrote, and kept writing, but for a brief period in the early 1950s, he had his finger closer to the pulse of America than anyone, and that’s why these six novels are still essential reading today.