February 26, 2017 12:01:49 am
Who is the father of hardboiled sex and violence? Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, of course, the world is generally agreed. But there is a third champion in the game, whose collected works used to grace the bookshelves of all self-respecting middle class homes the world over until that fickle community were deflected from hardboiled in the Sixties by the rising tide of James Hadley Chase and Harold Robbins. I have just rediscovered the third man, Mickey Spillane, in an edition whose preface argues forcefully that he was the first man.
Chronologically, Hammett’s Sam Spade was the first tough guy shamus to hit the streets of Depression-era USA, debuting in The Maltese Falcon in 1930. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who owed quite a bit of his personality to Spade, appeared nine years later in The Big Sleep, which would go on to become classic Hollywood with Humphrey Bogart in the lead. Frank Morrison ‘Mickey’ Spillane’s Mike Hammer came on the scene late, in 1947, with I, the Jury. Indeed, Hammer is also bailiff, judge and executioner in this tale of friendship and revenge. And on a careful re-reading, he is clearly the legitimate foreparent of James Bond, the character who brought hardboiled out of genre and made it mainstream. So much so that its backdrop was Cold War geopolitics.
The tradition of popular culture in which the hardboiled genre belongs sees the world through stereotypically male eyes. It is a bleak gaze, rendering urban American settings somewhat like Iceland during an Ice Age. And it has especial trouble with the ladies. Woman trouble is as old as popular literature, as old as Irene Adler, whom Sherlock Holmes referred to as “the woman”, to the exclusion of all others. It hasn’t gone away.
Later on, in the 20th century, there was a fork in the hardboiled family tree. One branch kept the faith, featuring gumshoes cynically remote from life, to whom relationships are minor sub-plots. The other, of which Mike Hammer is the pioneer, engages forcefully with life. Its protagonist is as open to getting intimate with women who enter the plot as he is to planting his fist in the face of the villain, or of not so innocent bystanders. And he does a lot of face-planting. While Hammett and Chandler’s hard men are cold fishes, Hammer is enraged by violent crime. He takes it personally and reacts to it violently.
Bond, it may be argued, is the child of this tradition. He is cavalierly violent and a career ladies’ man. Through the 20th century, every protagonist in the genre has had their Moneypenny, the helpmeet and eternally potential love interest. Hammer has the alluring assistant Velda, who goes on strike whenever he comes to work with lipstick on his collar. She is generally on strike, since the transgression is a permanent feature of the world, according to Hammer. But the plot of I, the Jury hinged on other women, without whom there would have been no story. Similarly, if you took the women out of Bond story lines — which are rarely substantial in the first place, and whose momentum is driven by velocity rather than mass – there wouldn’t be much left but colourful villainy.
Ian Fleming had conceived James Bond as a “blunt instrument” in the hands of a bureaucracy. Things were supposed to happen to him. He was not expected to happen to things. He was given the blandest of English names to go with his nature. Mike Hammer began life with a far more glamorous name — Mike Danger, who was planned as a comic book hero. Half a century later, Mickey Spillane did partner with Max Allan Collins, a lifelong fan, to write the Mike Danger story. Collins also wrote the foreword to the Mike Hammer stories recollected, which were published by the New American Library in 2001. He admits to having enjoyed the “unlikely position of being perhaps the chief defender of one of the most popular writers of all time.”
Strange are the economics of literature. The hardboiled wave was incubated in Black Mask magazine, launched by HL Mencken and the critic George Jean Nathan to subsidise their snooty cultural magazine, The Smart Set. Everyone who mattered contributed to it, including Chandler, Hammett and Spillane. The tough guys who were born in its pages have fathered some of the biggest brands of 20th century entertainment, from Bond to Dirty Harry and John Rambo. Even — why not — the satirical TV serial Sledge Hammer, which didn’t run half as long as it deserved to, with a brilliantly dark signature quite: “Trust me, I known what I’m doing.” Sledge generally said this just before doing something incredibly stupid, like shooting the commissioner of police.
The legacy of Black Mask represents literary real estate worth billions of dollars. The Bond tradition forms its most lucrative district and, as Max Allan Collins argues, there is a strong argument for tracing it back to Mike Hammer. It is time to resurrect Mickey Spillane and give him a serious read.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.