Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye with its lyrical prose and distinct voice is a tough act to follow. It is no small surprise then that I, the Jury, the first of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, falls a bit short when viewed alongside Chandler’s work. Despite being roughly 30 years apart in age both Chandler and Spillane were publishing hardboiled fiction at the height of the genre’s popularity throughout the late 40s and fifties. I, the Jury was published in 1948 just one year before the 5th Marlowe novel, The Little Sister and just two years after The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart hit theaters. In a bit of a reversal, it is interesting to note that just as The Long Goodbye was hitting print I, the Jury was hitting the silver screen in 3d (bizarre right?). There has been a Mike Hammer novel published at least once a decade, there is a ten year gap between Kiss Me, Deadly in 1952 and The Girl Hunters in 1962 and the tail end of Spillane’s life is sparse in terms of publishing, with the latest novel The Goliath Bone completed by Max Collins and published posthumously in 2008.
Where Phillip Marlowe wears a veil of cynicism to disguise his basically good nature Mike Hammer is the embodiment of cynicism: harder, meaner, and angrier then Marlowe ever was. There are still some inconsistencies in his portrayal here though they may be chalked up to this being both Spillane’s and Hammer’s first outings in the world of detective fiction. While I was lenient to the point of excluding any commentary regarding Chandler’s treatment of non-whites in his book I couldn’t help but cringe at Spillane’s portrayal of black people in I, the Jury. It is the dialogue that really does it, though how or if it is any worse then Twain’s Jim is open to debate, but there isn’t a black character in the novel that couldn’t be identified with the use of highly offensive dialect. Where Spillane is frequently criticized for the sex, violence, and misogyny of his work I found that his treatment the notion of “other” in general, whether they be female, black, or an implied homosexual, is worthy of some criticism. Again, how much criticism is open to debate as the prejudices seen in Spillane’s writing can be seen as indicative of the era they were written in. There is an article over at Crime Time that covers this a bit more than I will (though I find the format a bit odd).
I, the Jury opens with the death of private investigator Mike Hammer’s friend, Jack. Jack, of course, isn’t merely a friend but the man who saved Hammer’s life during the war. This little fact leads Hammer to swear that not only will he find Jack’s killer but enact a bit of Old Testament, eye for an eye, style justice when he finds whoever did it. What follows is a twisting journey through New York and its environs, across high society and low with a man less concerned about justice then he is about revenge. Hammer is an interesting study in contradictions. A man who, by his own word, isn’t afraid to kill someone to achieve justice but who adamantly refuses to sleep with woman he wants to marry before they are married; then goes off and sleeps with someone else. His taunting of his female secretary while borderline playful more often smacks of cruelty yet he is frequently complimentary of her skills.
Hammer isn’t quite the antithesis of Chandler’s Marlowe but he doesn’t quite jive with Chandler’s notion of what a hardboiled detective should embody. There is a certain degree of moral ambiguity coloring Hammer’s actions, particularly at the end of the novel, that left me dissatisfied. Sure the killer inevitably shares Jack’s fate, the mystery of his death is resolved, but there isn’t really any sense of justice done. Hammer’s actions bear some similarity to Sam Spade’s (I’ve only seen the movie version of The Maltese Falcon) though Spade has the advantage of bringing Archer’s killers to justice in eyes of the law as well as settling his own personal vendetta. The idea of justice embodied by Mike Hammer in I, the Jury left me feeling a bit dirty.
I, the Jury isn’t by any means a bad book. It is actually quite entertaining and Spillane excels at telling an exciting thrill-a-minute story. Moral ambiguity aside Spillane leads us on a hell of a journey and whatever your opinions might be on the matter took some rather large risks with the level of sex and violence he packed into his stories. Whether that violence works is another matter entirely. At least in I, the Jury I think the that gore and violence of the novel serve to heighten the story’s intensity. Then again, I’m reading the book in 2010 as part of a culture more inured to violence as part of entertainment media then the 1948 when the tale was published. In terms of violence where Chandler’s work is step removed from the staid and proper action of the English detective novel Spillane is yet another step removed from the more action-oriented work of Chandler. What works for one reader might not work for another and, at least so-far as I, the Jury is concerned, I think the violence works in service to the tone and plot of the novel (again in 2010 anyway) rather then merely as an addendum including to shock readers.
If I’m not mistake Spillane, like Chandler, throws a bit of jab in the way of British author Agatha Christie. During a scene in which a murder occurs in a mansion, very much the reminiscent of the “locked door mystery,” a police detective tells the attendant party-goers “I know you can’t all be responsible.” Another, somewhat veiled, attack at the resolution of Murder on the Orient Express. If that is the case it, at the least, indicates that like Chandler, Spillane was dissatisfied with status quo of the detective story and was attempting to inject his story with some element of realism. I, the Jury is not of the same quality of The Long Goodbye or, as far as I’m concerned, The Big Sleep. It is entertaining ride and, especially for it’s time, unflinching in its portrayal of sex and violence. It certainly marks a further shift in tone and for fans of genre certainly worth a look; it is admittedly not for everyone.