Put One in His Leg, Ellen

The Case of Mickey Spillane

“The most startling mystery story writer in the publishing world today” has, the papers say, given it up. Well, time will show; in the meantime, his seven novels go on selling and his film goes on showing.

Mickey Spillane found fame as nearly overnight as makes no difference. His first book, “I The Jury,” was published in 1949; his fifth, two years later, sold two and a half million copies at the first printing in America. In this country, where the reading public borrows rather than buys his fiction, something over a quarter of a million Spillane novels have been sold. To call them mystery stories is misleading; they belong to the literary genre known as “toughies,” and the mysteries are only less transparent than the heroines’ dresses.

The aim of the “toughies” is to assault the senses, chiefly through the description of sex and violence (together or separately, and in every conceivable form). Malevolence, brutality and lust are the unvarying subject-matter; everything is larger than life and only half as natural. The style of writing is a magnifying glass held to the profusion of heuristic incident. Its facile craftsmanship—extraordinary in its technical excellence, and as unrelated to art as a chorus girl to a ballerina—leaves no effect unexploited. Spillane reduces description to a series of simple, evocative metaphors; buildings are “towering canyons,” a bridge “a spidery steel skeleton.” Incident is iterated and reiterated to impress by cumulation, as in this passage from “One Lonely Night”:

    “Two murders. Two green cards.
    It was the same way backwards. Two green cards and two murders.
    Which came first, the murders or the cards? Murder at odd angles. Two murders. Eight odd angles. Yes, two murders. The fat boy got what he was after. Because of him the girl was murdered no matter how. So I got him. I was a murderer like they said, only it was different. I was just a killer.”

It is the school of journalism’s sixth-form stuff, a tale told in headlines. The stories unroll rather than unfold with scarcely ever a pause: something is always happening—generally something unpleasant.

The Mickey Spillane novels represent the latest stage in the development of the thriller, which practically dates from the Industrial Revolution. Its original form, the Gothic novel, derived from the sentimental reaction against the rapid onset of the machine age—a mediaevalist enthusiasm which, running through literature, painting and architecture, enthroned ruins, broken traceries and ivy-clad towers as symbols of romance, beauty and freedom. From a revolt against restraint and ugliness, however, it became a drug for minds bored and uneasy; the ruins became popular literary settings where—to quote from one of the novels—”horrid noises and still more  horrid sights were heard and beheld.” The new conditions of town life and the division of labour were—and are—responsible for the lack of variety and emotional satisfaction that in its turn created a demand for vicarious satisfaction, even though the mass reading public had yet to come into being. Some of the titles tell their own stories: “The Necromancer,” “The Mysterious Warning,” “Who’s the Murderer?” and “Horrid Mysteries.”

With the development of the centralized State, the main stream of thrillers gradually evolved from simple eeriness, through crime stories where graduated exercises in legal justice were performed, to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes embodied all the social ideals of his time; a townsman of remarkable individuality, contemplative, a scientist yet something of an aesthete too, thrusting  at crime and recalcitrancy with the sure lance of logic that the Queen’s subjects might ride at peace in their hansoms. The police, agents of a still immature State machine, were clumsy accessories to Holmes’s analytical feats, even though the ultimate glory was theirs. Thirty years later, however, crime stories had a new maestro—”Edgar Wallace for thrills,” the yellow covers said—and in his novels the police were supreme. The formula was much the same—crime, mystery, clues and climax—but the social setting had changed. Science, which afforded Holmes his weighty deductions and his monographs on dust and cigarette ash, now had produced fast cars, telephones and forensic laboratories. Liberalism was slipping fast into its grave, and the State had become more efficient, more powerful and more impersonal. Even the language had changed; the leisurely prose and the meticulously reasoned explanations which held Watson spellbound had given place to the slick, terse narrative of modern popular journalism.

Whatever the other differences between these writers and Mickey Spillane, one is paramount. The “toughies” are all violence; Conan Doyle and Wallace never considered it. Few of the Sherlock Holmes stories have murder as their cause, and some do not even involve any criminal offence. The master criminal, Moriarty, is an intellectual megalomaniac, representing possibly another facet of the same social ideals. Almost the same may be said of Wallace’s books. His characters are more sophisticated, but little less pacific; the most frequent crime is burglary, and at least one of Wallace’s thrillers does not deal with crime at all.

The “toughies” arose in America in the late nineteen-thirties, though the most famous early exponent, James Hadley Chase, was not an American. Their style owed much to Hemingway and the other realist writers, their content to “True Police Cases” and “Real Crime Stories.” Reference has already been made to the mode of writing. It is writing for an age of speed, aiming at quick impact through simple graphic images and emotion-laden phrases, its staccato sentences echoing the rattle of the typewriter. Everyone calls everyone else a bastard; everything is told brusquely and forcefully in such terms as “She gave him the drink in the eyes, glass and all” or “If he tries to scram, put one in his leg, Ellen.”

There is an obvious debt, too, to the films—though its nature is not quite so obvious. In recent years “toughies” have come to the screen, but it was the classic gangster films of twenty or so years ago that established and popularised the conventions of the fabulous gangster world. Essentially, those films were “horse operas” in disguise, with Buicks instead of snow-white steeds, gats instead of six-guns, racketeers instead of rustlers and crap games instead of rodeos. Apart from the properties and conventions, the films’ biggest influence in the tough gangster story has been a matter of technique of narration: the close-up, the heightening of sensation by viewing from unusual angles, the dramatic possibilities of swift cutting and so on.

There are two outstanding motifs in the Mickey Spillane novels: stimulation, and escape into a world not far away where desires are realised. The two are interwoven—take this passage from “The Big Kill”:

    “The little guy stared too long. He should have been watching my face. I snapped the side of the rod across his jaw and laid the flesh open to the bone. He dropped the sap and staggered into the big boy with a scream starting to come up out of his throat only to get it cut off in the middle as I pounded his teeth back into his mouth with the end of the barrel. The big guy tried to shove him out of the way. He got so mad he came right at me with his head down and I took my own damn time about kicking him in the face. He smashed into the door and lay bubbling. So I kicked him again and he stopped bubbling.”

Plenty of stimulation, for those who want it; and a phantasy—helped by the use of the first person—of revenge for the humiliations of everyday life in an unequal world.

By the same token, there is little room for thought or knowledge in Spillane’s world. Mike Hammer, the moronic private detective of the novels, is guided by drums pounding in his ears that tell he must kill: “I make my own rules as I go along and I don’t have to account to anybody.” The rules allow all-in beatings-up, slappings-down and tuppings, and strictly exclude mental holds.

The innumerable sexual adventures of Spillane’s surly Samsons are unvarying variants on a single theme—domination over beautiful women. The girls are always over-developed both physically and emotionally; a jerk of the head brings them running and a shake of the head leaves them waiting. Thus, Mike Hammer and the brunette from Texas:

    “She said ‘Mike  . . .’ again and struck the match . . . There was only the sheet over her that rose and dipped between the inviting hollows of her breasts. Ellen was beautiful as only a mature woman can be beautiful. She was lustful as only a mature woman can be lustful.
    ‘Tuck me in, Mike.’
    The match burned closer to my fingers. I reached down and got the corner of the sheet in my fingers and flipped it all the way back. She lay there beautiful and naked and waiting,
    ‘I love brunettes,’ I said’
    The tone of my voice told her no, not tonight  . . . “

Opportunity, as they say, would be a fine thing; and that, presumably, is what the reader feels.

What distinguishes Mickey Spillane’s novels from others of their kind in the occasional interpolation of a crude philosophy, spoken in the first person, justifying the brutality and all the rest. Apart from adding a little in the way of realism, these discourses are curiously near the truth. For example:

    “He had to go back five years to a time he knew of only second-hand and tell me how 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.
    That was me. I could have made it sound better if I’d said it. There in the muck and slime of the jungle. . . . I had gotten the taste of death and found it palatable to the extent that I could never again eat the fruits of a normal civilization.”

Spillane—who was a wartime pilot, and is a Jehovah’s Witness—plainly identifies himself with his heroes. His photograph on the jackets is almost a reconstruction from Mike Hammer’s self-descriptions; the name is the same, and there are several references to his war service.

It is clearly intended that the reader, too, should identify himself with the hero. Every kind of herd prejudice is appealed to. “One Lonely Night,” written in 1951, is a fierce attack on Communism. There is not the faintest indication of what Communism is about, only a Black-Hand-Gang atmosphere. The Communists’ headquarters is straight out of a boys’ adventure yarn, with maps and secret plans and microfilmed documents, and the conspirators themselves are all so vividly labelled—long hair, sinister looks, etc.—that one wonders they dare walk down the street. But, whatever they were up to, Mike deals with them. McCarthy is weak stuff compared with Mike. Mike shoots the lot.

Why has all this come to be? Why are violence, prejudice and near-pornography best-sellers in the civilised world in 1954? Partial answers have already been given; the whole answer is that the “toughies,” like all popular reading matter, mirror the consciousness of the age. Nothing in Mickey Spillane is immoral—nothing, that is, conflicts with the commonly held ideals and behaviour-patterns of our time. The brutality is used by “good” against “evil”; the ends justify the means, say the mores of modern society. If the big bombs are justified by their purpose, it is hardly in proportion to complain of Mike Hammer’s gun. Spillane himself says much the same thing when he writes of “murder sanctified by law.” The State everywhere trains killers—and they kill because, like Mike Hammer, they have been given strong enough prejudices.

As for the sex, that goes with the rest. The family is no longer the stable, carefully preserved group of the days of Gothic romance. Lust goes hand in hand with violence, and violence is always incipient in our power-ridden, war-haunted world. Socialists want to change it for a world in which “The Big Kill” won’t exist—the Mickey Spillane sort, nor the nuclear fission sort.

Robert Barltrop

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