The first time I remember seeing the name “Mickey Spillane” was in TV Guide, which had a full-page ad proclaiming “Stacey Keach in Mickey Spillane’s ‘Mike Hammer!’” These were too many names for me, and where was Stacey Keach? All I saw was some guy. It took awhile for it to dawn on me that Stacey Keach was a guy. Who names their son “Stacey?” (Apologies to the men out there named Stacey, Stacey Keach definitely added a knockout blow of testosterone to the name. Hey, I just wrote that like Mickey Spillane!)
I then saw Spillane in the Miller Lite ads from the ‘70s and ‘80s—they usually had famous sports figures of the day, like Bubba Smith and Bob Uecker and Dick Butkus doing something goofy. (The ads were actually pretty funny.) But they also had Mickey Spillane, of all people, always with a buxom blonde in a tight shirt who’d squeal, “Oh, MICKEY!” It was kind of Mickey Spillane in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer selling “everything you always wanted in a beer. And less.”
But last night was the first time I actually read a Mickey Spillane novel—the first in his Mike Hammer series: “I, the Jury.” Published in 1947, it introduces Mike Hammer as a tough guy who fits his name like a glove at a crime scene—a hard-drinking, hard-boiled, hard-knuckled WWII vet who’s now living his post-war years as a private detective. Hammer’s vocabulary is as glorious as his way with women—he pretty much just winks and their clothes fall off. Or as he puts it, “… I could see through everything she had on. And it wasn’t much. Just a negligee. She smiled and sat down beside me. I moved over to make some room.” I don’t think there were many sentences that had more than seven or eight words, including words one never hears anymore, like “flatfoot,” “guttersnipe,” and “chum.” A woman has “million-dollar legs,” and snooty men “go society.” I had to write them all down, which made reading “I, the Jury” take about twice as long as it should have, but gee, it was a swell thing to do.
The plot of “I, the Jury” can be summed up comme ci: Mike Hammer takes the law into his own hands after his best friend and WWII buddy is murdered. Swearing that he’ll kill the killer, Hammer navigates through a seedy path of racketeers, prostitutes, and psychiatrists, beating the hell out of any thug who tries to get the jump on him, dodging bullets and seductresses with equal aplomb, and finally getting his man. (Or woman?) There’s not a guy who can rough him up or a dame who can bring him down.
And that’s ironically what takes some of the fun out of “I, the Jury.” Hammer is like the New York Yankees—he always wins. I mean, even James Bond makes mistakes. He just gets out of them because the antagonist would rather reveal his evil plans first and then kill Bond instead of just killing Bond. But with Hammer, every woman who crosses his path falls passionately in love with him, and every cop looks the other way while Hammer flagrantly breaks the law.
Still, taken for what it is, “I, the Jury” is an enjoyable romp through a time and place that are long gone. And if you’re a lover of old-time New Yorkese, then you will devour this book. Yes, there’s a “Naked Gun” aspect to it, but in the end, it’s all in good fun. Even when Hammer’s working a guy over to the point where he pukes.