Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Teenage Mysteries--Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer

When I was a teenager I was a voracious reader of all things Stephen King, Peter Straub--and Mickey Spillane.  Donald Hamilton, too, but the Matt Helm series wasn't as much of a (questionable) influence upon me as the Mike Hammer series.

Spillane was the best-selling author of anything English throughout all of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.  You can look it up.  It wasn't close, and it may--or may not--surprise you that the larger percentage of his readers was female.  Particularly, bored housewives who wanted a bit more spice in their lives.  Mike Hammer was particularly cartoonish and unbelievable, but the cool thing about the books was that you really didn't think about them as you read them.  My favorite example of this--and I recognized this when I was a teeanger (and I'm talkin' 12 years old here)--was when he would say unbelievably outlandish things when a friend died, or rant and rage in front of a reporter, or not know someone on page 20, but then say he knew that character later on (this happened in I, the Jury, which Spillane supposedly wrote in about a week or two, maybe less).

And the sex and violence was incredible, in an eye-popping way.  I seriously expected every voluptuous, sex-crazed woman to still be a virgin into her thirties, and I was a little surprised when I didn't see women literally throwing themselves at guys.  My favorite Spillane title was The Erection Set; my favorite ending is when the guy beds this jaw-dropping walking sex-bomb, who happens to be a virgin into her thirties because she'd been waiting for the guy her whole life (they were childhood friends), and it turns out that she was an undercover (pun intended) cop and he was an undercover CIA operative, or something.  And as they're having sex, the bad guy opens the door, and says something like, "Nice.  Very nice," but he said a little too much, because by that time the hero had grabbed the gun off the nighttable and shot the bad guy's arm completely off, and as he's screaming and blood's pumping everywhere, the main character shoots the guy a few more times and kills him.  While the cordite's still in the air, and the blood's seeping into the carpeting and running through the floorboards, the woman says, "Now f--- me, like a dog," or something shocking like that, and of course he does.

Whew!!!  The fact that tens of millions of people, most of them female, apparently, would read this was shocking, but only until I read them, at which point the sex and violence was so cartoonish that it was entertaining.  (I know this isn't politically correct, but that's the way it was for me and tens of millions of others.)  The mysteries were not mysterious; the women weren't exactly femme fatales (except maybe for Charlotte in I, the Jury), and the writing wasn't exactly Raymond Chandler.  And yet there was a New York City feel, and there was tons of atmosphere, and overall the unreality was grounded into some sort of reality.  And, somehow, it all worked.  As you can see.  I remember all of these things, no problem (including Pat Chambers, his best friend), and I haven't read any of them since I was maybe 18.  (I still have all of them in a box in the garage, along with all the Matt Helms and, I think, Hardy Boyses and Nancy Drews.  I'm seriously jonesing reading some of them again; maybe during vacation.)

Plus, there were the Miller Lite (and Gillette, I think) commercials, of course, and the 80s tv show with Stacy Keach and Verna Bloom (I think; one of my first crushes!).  In my novel, Cursing the Darkness, Foster's secretary, Colleen, certainly has a Velda feel to her, so much so that the 1st person narration references Mike Hammer and Velda.  I'd be lying if I said that they weren't both influences.  The series would make GREAT graphic novels today, if anybody could secure the rights to do that.

I would both urge teenage readers to read them, and yet frown upon it at the same time.  I'm sure I got the exact same reactions from my 11th and 12th grade English teacher (same woman); I can see them now, as I did read a few, including The Erection Set, while in her classes.  My parents weren't thrilled at these books, either, though, if I remember right, I read the first few because my mother had them, thereby backing up the female readership statement earlier.

I remember that Spillane tried to keep the series going in the 80s and 90s, and that Max Collins, I think, finished a couple--one called The Goliath Bone, I think--but Spillane had lost a lot of breathless steam by then, and they didn't quite feel right anymore.  He tried to tone them down a lot, and Mike Hammer and Velda got married, which was like Philip Marlowe getting married, but even less believable.  It was like he was trying to recreate his bad writing, thereby proving that you can't write badly if you're trying to.  Or something.  Anyway, they weren't ridiculously breathless anymore, and that's what really drove them to begin with.

Needless to say, the series couldn't be written today.  I can't decide if I think that's a shame or not, just like I can't decide whether I'd recommend them for teeange readers or not.  Ultimately I'd say that it is a shame, and that I'd recommend them, but it goes to show you that I'm just as much a product of my time as Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane were a product of theirs.

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