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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Case for Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane, who died yesterday, was a much better writer than the mainstream critics gave him credit for being. As is well known, his books sold by the millions, and he was the best-selling mystery writer ever in the hardboiled school. The AP story on Spillane's life and works provides a good introduction to the man and his most famous creation, the tough detective Mike Hammer.

Spillane's books were definitely not intellectuals' favorites, but they had much good in them. The stories in the best of his novels are taut, plausible though melodramatic, and involving. His prose was much better than critics gave him credit for—what they claimed to like in Hemingway and James M. Cain, they despised in Spillane. His characterizations were largely just functional, not the kind of morally ambiguous kinds the critics have preferred since World War II. But the characters did spring to life on the page, and the carried the stories well. The stories were what fascinated readers, and Spillane was a born storyteller.

Critics hated him, as is well known. He was unabashedly conservative in the pre-Reagan era when political conservatism was socially and culturally anathema. His books told stories in which the hero was a real hero and the villains were real villains. Nonetheless, it is not true that Spillane divided the world strictly into black and white, good and evil. The backgrounds of his books, including the subsidiary characters, suggest that behind the central conflict there exists a world of basically unheroic people just trying to muddle through life. And there is nothing to suggest that Spillane did not see the moral ambiguity of Mike Hammer's methods. Hammer was a rough guy, the postwar equivalent of Carroll John Daly's detectives such as Race Williams and Satan Hall. In Spillane's books it was perfectly clear that Mike Hammer did things conventional heroes would never have considered. But Spillane was all about results, and if you're on the right side, the right thing to do is whatever will get the job done. Sometimes, Spillane recognizes, the situation is so dire that moral niceties are not an option. That notion certainly resonated with Cold War U.S. audiences.

Mickey Spillane didn't care what critics thought, and he was right not to care. He was a storyteller, and a fine one indeed.


Jay D. Homnick said...

As a teenager I read 'em all and loved 'em. So did many of my close friends.

But about fifteen years ago I picked up some book he did where Mike Hammer was involved with the Mafia against the KGB or some such nonsense, with plotting that was awful and writing that was worse. Sometimes you have to know when enough of a good thing is enough.

Francis W. Porretto said...

I've been straining to emphasize the difference between storytellers and the more pretentious, less entertaining sort of writers in my "Storyteller's Art" pieces. It's nice to know that there are others who grasp the distinction.

Hunter Baker said...

I picked up "I, the Jury" a few months ago and immediately understood why Spillane sold so many books. Mike Hammer is what a lot of guys think a man should be. He's tough, has a strong moral compass, and doesn't mind a little "might makes right." I didn't see a lot of Christ in his world, but he's the kind of guy you'd need if you thought God had abandoned ship.