Mickey & Mike

March 9: Mickey Spillane was born on this day in 1918. Spillane began his writing career in comic books, concocting heroic adventures for Captain Marvel, Superman, and others. His first ambition was to create his own comic hero, Mike Danger; in the mid-1940s, for fun and quick cash, he tried his hand at a crime novel, turning Mike Danger into Mike Hammer and setting him loose for a five-decade shoot-out with a dame-trap, punk-rotten world:

You've forgotten that I'm not a guy that takes any crap. Not from anybody. You've forgotten I've been in business because I stayed alive longer than some guys who didn't want me that way. You've forgotten that I've had some punks tougher than you'll ever be on the end of a gun and I pulled the trigger just to watch their expression change. (Vengeance is Mine)

Historians of the genre say that when I, the Jury, the first Mike Hammer book, sold 2 million copies it "electrified and inspired" the mid-century paperback industry, but the critics have never been kind. "Lurid action, lurid characters, lurid writing, lurid plot, lurid finish. Verdict: Lurid" (The Saturday Review, 1947). In Hard-boiled Sentimentality: The Secret Life of American Crime Fiction (2008), Leonard Cassuto expands the indictment, citing Spillane for catering to the sexist fears in his readership. The double threat of Charlotte Manning, the antagonist in I, the Jury, is that she is not only a man-killer but a successful psychiatrist:

Your profession started it. …You are a woman who wanted wealth and power. Not to use it extravagantly, but just to have it. How many times have you gone into the frailty of men and seen their weaknesses? It made you afraid. You no longer had the social instinct of a woman—that of being dependent upon a man. You were afraid, so you found a way to increase your bank account and charge it to business. A way in which you'd never be caught, but a dirty way. The dirtiest way there is—almost.

And then Charlotte tries the dirtiest way, stripping from her blouse in front of Hammer so that he could see her hidden muscles and, where there should have been a bra, the inevitable, "firm and inviting" breasts. After just a moment's hesitation, in self- and gender-defense, Hammer plugs her.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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