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A shot to the gut of fiction

A crime writer of blunt force, Mickey Spillane darkened and changed the pulp novel.

July 21, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

In 1947, tough guy Mike Hammer put a .45 slug just below his naked lover's navel, a killing shot that also served as a starter's gun for American pulp fiction. Whatever literary social constraints that might have existed before disappeared as the paperback version of Mickey Spillane's sex- and violence-filled "I, the Jury" became a postwar publishing phenomenon.

It can be hard sometimes to look back and see the importance of little events before they echo, or to look at the creation of a cliche and recognize it as fresh in its moment. But that's what Spillane's debut novel was. A small book that barely sold as a hardcover, "I, the Jury" went on to shatter some norms, create others and transform the world of the paperback novel.

And it added a core of darkness to literary perceptions of the American hero, with Spillane, who died Monday, establishing Hammer as what writer Robert Parker described this week as a "vigilante lone wolf."

"I don't know that [Spillane] did anything that hadn't been done already, but he did it pulpily, with a coarse bravado," said Parker, a former English professor and creator of Spenser, a sharp and hard-edged Boston private eye. "Mick was nothing if not pulpily garish. Vulgar, in the best sense of the word."

Other writers -- William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, among them -- produced more highly distilled novels that were rooted in the horrors and lunacies of combat and the resumption of domestic life. But as the rest of the culture progressed from black and white to color, Spillane stayed with the two tones of good and evil. Cops might have to follow codes and rules in dealing with suspects and witnesses, but Mike Hammer doesn't.

If it took a few loosened teeth and the taste of gun grease to loosen a tongue, so be it. And if a woman required a little convincing, well, that was the way of the world, now, wasn't it? No, it wasn't, but it was the way of Spillane's fictional world.

Hard-boiled detective fiction preceded Spillane by decades, and film noir had already turned characters like Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade into existential emblems of ennui and disillusionment. Yet even Spade, who had no qualms about cuckolding his business partner, retained a core of something like human decency. Spillane, though, made his hero primeval, a dark twist on a genre established by Hammett, James M. Cain and countless contributors to the post-World War I Black Mask pulp magazine.

"I would guess it was not a conscious decision on his part to strip the art out of it and make it visceral," Parker said. But given Spillane's own black-and-white worldview, "I'm not sure he could have done otherwise," Parker said, then added with a laugh: "I would like to hear Mick discuss art sometime."

The books, despite Spillane's reputation for lack of literary adornments, weren't all toneless staccato delivery, at least not to mystery author George Pelecanos, who first read Spillane in college. "The teacher ridiculed it, treated it like a joke," said Pelecanos, author of noir-shrouded mysteries and suspense novels set around Washington, D.C. "But if you read those first three or four novels there's a lot of lyricism in his descriptions of New York City that he's not generally given credit for."

It didn't help that Spillane could be so easily parodied. "I, the Jury" ends with Hammer shooting his lover, the killer of his partner. As she bleeds to death she asks Hammer how he could have done it. "It was easy," Hammer says. Parker recalled a period joke based on that scene: "I put two slugs in her gut and she asked for more."

Yet the satire obscures the realism. Before Spillane, death even in detective novels was generally a distant thing. Spillane, with his generation's visions of war in his head, sought to make it real.

"The brutality that young men saw and perpetrated in the war raised all forms of pop art to another level," Pelecanos said. "Film noir, for example, before the war didn't exist in particularly brutal form. A lot of these guys who came back didn't know they were going to be artists or filmmakers."

Pelecanos and others question whether modern writers like James Ellroy would have evolved without Spillane. Or Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" movies. The coldblooded toughness of Spillane's work also courses through the films of Quentin Tarantino, such as "Reservoir Dogs."

But it's likely that had Spillane not spilled the literary blood, someone else would have. Art is propelled by its edges, and about the only edge left to the genre was to make it sharper, and harder. In that regard, Spillane was to detective fiction what punk would later become to pop music -- a hard kick at the door of social convention that in retrospect seems inevitable.

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