Book Review: My Gun is Quick by Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane’s 2nd novel, My Gun is Quick, delivers an even tougher punch than its predecessor.  It’s at once grittier, seedier, and full of the kind of passion and brutality that can only exude from a Mike Hammer story.  The book begins oddly enough with Hammer taking on a rather meta perspective speaking to his reader directly:

“When you sit at home comfortably folded up in a chair beside a fire, have you ever thought what goes on outside there?  Probably not.  You pick up a book and read about things and stuff, getting a vicarious kick from people and events that never happened.  You’re doing it now, getting ready to fill in a normal life with details of someone else’s experiences. Fun, isn’t it?”

Hammer goes on to describe the typical reading experience as “life through a keyhole” describing his perspective reader as someone who is out of touch with what really happens in the world.  It’s a rather bold way to start a pulp novel by essentially telling your reader “you have no idea what really goes on out there.”  I have to admit that this drew me in further although I’m not sure how readers in the 1950s would have reacted to this. I was pleasantly surprised to see Spillane have Hammer start out the story this way.  It would have been easier and safer to just start off by getting into the plot, but Hammer has his reader take a moment to think about how they’re about to engage with this story.

Once the story begins we find Hammer stopping by a seedy all night diner for coffee after having resolved a case.  He befriends a red headed prostitute who we later learn was named Nancy.  She asks him to treat her to some coffee and they have a friendly conversation.   Although many still view these Hammer stories as a sexist and misogynist, the character is actually quite nonjudgmental of the prostitutes in this story and treats them with a lot more respect than one would expect of a man from that generation.  He develops genuine sympathy for Nancy and goes on to describe her:

“She wasn’t very pretty after all. She had been once, but there are those things that happen under the skin and are reflected in the eyes  and set of the mouth that take all the beauty out of a woman’s face. Yeah, at one time she must have been almost beautiful.  That wasn’t too long ago, either.”

She tells him, “Big Mugs like you never have to pay, mister.  With you it’s the woman who pays.”

Their friendly conversation is interrupted when a man, described by Hammer as a “greaseball,” accosts her forcing Hammer to get involve and dispatch him.  Once the threat is dealt with, Hammer tells us:

“I grinned at her again.  She was scared, in trouble, but still my friend.  I took out my wallet. “Do something for me, will you, Red?” I shoved three fifties in her hand.  “Get off this street. Tomorrow you go uptown and buy some decent clothes.  Then get a morning paper and hunt up a job.  This kind of stuff is murder.”  I don’t ever want anybody to look at me the way she did then. A look that belongs in church when you’re praying or getting married or something.”

The next day, Hammer finds out that Nancy died in an apparent hit and run, and he knows without a doubt that she had been murdered despite all the evidence pointing to an accident.  He enlists his friend on the Police Force, Pat Chambers, to help dig around and soon finds himself on the trail of a lethal crime ring with many powerful connections and many means to threaten whoever might get in their way.  Hammer fearlessly goes after them out of his sense of outrage with the way Nancy was treated and all that led her to where she ended up in her life.  There’s no subtle irony at play when he reminds the reader later on that this crime ring would be taken down because of the senseless killing of a prostitute.  We also find out that perhaps Nancy had been working out her own angle to usurp the system that actively oppressed her and other women.  A complicated blackmail plot emerges and Hammer finds himself employed by a wealthy client with a vested interest in the outcome of the case.

Along the way, Hammer befriends and actually falls in love with a reformed prostitute named Lola, who offers some background insight into how and why women at the time might have fallen prey to the prostitution racket.  She tells him:

“Maybe that’s why Nancy and I were so close . . . because there was some excuse for it. I was in love, Mike . . . terribly in love with a guy who was no damn good.  I could have had anybody I wanted, but no, I had to fall for a guy who was no damn good at all.  We were going to get married when he ran away with a two-bit bum who hung around all the saloons in town.  I was pretty disgusted, I guess. If that was all men wanted I figured on playing the game.  I played it pretty good, too. After that I had everything, but never fell for anybody.  . . . I had something men wanted, and they were willing to supply the overhead charges. It got so good that it wasn’t worth while playing one sucker at a time.   Then one day I met a smart girl who introduced me to the right people, and after that the dates were supplied and I made plenty of money, and had a lot of time to spend it in, too.  I had a name and phone number, and if they had the dough all they had to do was call.  That’s why they called us call-girls.  The suckers paid plenty, but they got what they wanted and were safe.  Then one day I got drunk and slipped up.  After that I wasn’t safe to be with any more and the suckers complained, and they took away my name and my phone number, so all I had left was to go on the town.  There’s always people looking for left-overs like me.”

Lola describes how contracting venereal disease set her on a path downward within the prostitution ring and it’s a really sad story. Instead of judging her, Hammer sympathizes with her and treats her with the same respect that he would any other woman.  Today, we live in a world that might cynically mock this scenario, but Spillane entreats us to look at these characters in a genuine and refreshing way without sugarcoating the harsh reality of their circumstances.  Hammer falls in love with Lola because he sees her as someone equal to him in her humanity despite her difficulty in seeing herself as his equal because of her past. This is not a fanciful Pygmalion trope that Spillane uses as an exploitive aspect of the narrative.  Instead, he authentically captures the essence of two people really falling in love by delving into this genuine relationship between Mike and Lola.  This aspect of the novel is actually even more compelling than the murder investigation part of the plot.  There’s plenty that gets revealed in their interactions and plenty of unavoidable heartbreak when it all comes to a bitter end.

If I had one complaint, it would be that it’s not very hard to figure out the twist to the story long before it arrives.  When you find out who the villains turn out to be it doesn’t really have that impact your looking for.  In the 1st book, it was easy enough to guess who the villain turned out to be, but the final confrontation scene left an indelible impression on me.  In this story, that doesn’t quite happen.  There are plenty of times when Hammer could have complicated things for the eventual villains had he been onto their scent before the reader; not to mention the fact that many unpleasant things happen to innocent people along the way, which could have been prevented.  Despite some plotting issues, I actually found myself enjoying this novel a bit more than I, the Jury.  It was fascinating to see Hammer fall in love and it’s great to read much of the passionate writing herein.

I highly recommend My Gun is Quick to any fan of the genre.  It’s a thrilling fast paced read with many poignant character moments.  I may be one of those readers that Hammer referred to at the beginning of the story decades removed from when it was written, but I’d like to believe that the impact these stories have are timeless and perhaps we can gleam a bit of insight into the time and place Spillane wrote about and find that that place sadly might just exist today.

Source.

  1.  Spillane, Mickey My Gun is Quick. Signet, 1950.

Book Review: I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane was indeed a master of his craft. I’ve read other renown authors from the noir / hard-boiled genre, but there’s something that just comes across as more visceral and hard hitting about Spillane’s writing. There’s nothing pretentious about his style but there’s an unspoken wisdom behind his words. I may have read Spillane a long time ago, but it’s one of those things where if you approach something later in life it leaves an entirely different impression on you.

While it’s not that hard to figure out who may have killed Mike Hammer’s friend Jack, it’s really Mike Hammer’s single-mindedness and his flawed yet likeable persona that draws us in. By exploring Hammer’s psyche and motivation through the 1st person narrative, Spillane gets a reader to not only understand him but also to sympathize and even perhaps condone his callous attitude towards life at least in part.

Originally released in 1947, this is a book that is authentically of its time in terms of some out dated attitudes(which is to be expected) but it’s also very easy for a reader to put himself in that setting and feel as if he’s right there in the room with Hammer. This book is a classic in every sense of the word. It’s almost a master class in hardboiled / noir writing, and it’s a book that I’d be happy to return to and re-read at some point. Spillane introduced us to the gritty world of Mike Hammer and his sassy assistant Velda in this debut novel and the result is one that will definitely strike a nerve. It feels like these characters are still alive today as you read this book.

Both the prose and the dialogue are so top rate throughout.  There’s plenty revealed about the nature of Hammer as well as the characters he finds himself dealing with. There’s just something about exchanges like this that just makes the writing come alive to the point that you feel you could almost sink your teeth into their thoughts and words.  When describing Charolette, a psychiatrist who had attended the party Jack gave before his demise, Hammer says:

“Her breasts were laughing things that were firmly in place, although I could see no strap marks of a restraining bra. Her legs were encased in sheer nylons and set in high heels, making her almost as tall as I was. Beautiful legs. They were strong looking, shapely…. “

Soon after we get to some very provactive dialogue:

I grinned at her. ‘You remind me of something.’

‘What?’

‘A way of torturing a guy.’

‘Oh, please, I can’t be that bad. Do I affect you like that? Torture you, I mean?’

‘No, not quite. But if you take a guy that hasn’t seen a woman in five years, let’s say, and chain him to a wall and let you walk past him the way you did just now – well, that would be torture. See what I’m getting at.”

Many writers have since tried to emulate Spillane’s prose and dialogue to varying degrees of success, but there’s just something that comes across as so authentic, raw, and pure here that it’s easy to lose yourself in the narrative.  To some readers what comes across may be nothing more than a macho fantasy, but for someone who enjoys the genre and all its elements its like reading poetry.  The book trascends the revenge angle that remains at the forefront of the plot and becomes a poignant character study of a flawed man, his desires, and the way he perceives the world around him and the people occupying that world.

The world Hammer occupies is a cold and vicious one.  It’s a gritty urban landscape where characters either survive or don’t survive and it’s a world that doesn’t stop and grieve for those who don’t.  Mike Hammer sees himself as the ultimate purveyor of justice.  As hinted from the title, he’s driven to dole out justice his way as judge, jurror, and executioner of cold-blooded killers.  It never occurs to him that he may indeed be making himself into the very kind of killer he wants to hunt down.  There are friendships such as the one he has with Pat Chambers, the lead police detective who uncharacteristically decides to share information with Mike Hammer despite Mike being a Private Detective.  He also has his loyal assistant Velda who not only works for im and has a crush on him, she also understands him and accepts him for who he is probably more than anyone else Mike Hammer knows. There are desirable women who he must either submit to or resist depending on the circumstances, and there are victims who he may or may not be in a position to protect from a vicious killer.

In way, it’s refreshing to read something so honest and compelling, which stands in contrast to the way most of these kinds of characters are made to function today.  Today, we impart our heroes with tortured souls.  Once they’ve crossed a certain line, they have consciences that dragged them down and make our heroes question their own methods and even their own identities.  Take Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy for instance.  In each film, the character feels a progressing burden of having to carry out the very justice that initially inspired him. Our heroes today like to dwell in the existential consequences of their very existence as heroes and purveyors of justice.  In contrast, Mike Hammer of this novel exists in a time when such meadering philosphical melancholy isn’t only uncharacteristic, it’s nonexistent.  Mike Hammer remains secure in who he is and never questions the nature of how he doles out his brand of justice.  He just does it and he does it stubbornly and unapologetically.

The ending will hit you like a ton a bricks not because of who turns out to be the killer but because of the way Hammer tells it. The interplay between dialogue and Spillane’s descriptions in those final moments will leave an indelible mark on a reader. It’s a remarkable dance that engages the reader via Spillane’s stark but elegant language. I highly recommend getting to know Mike Hammer, a shamus for the ages.