Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review: I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

I, The Jury

Author: Mickey Spillane

Publisher: E. P. Dutton

Pages: 287 (e-book edition)

Publication Date: Original Hardcover, 1947
     Mickey Spillane was a World War II veteran (Army Air Forces) and prolific writer of crime fiction who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006.  He was awarded a “Grand Master” Award by the Mystery Writers of American in 1995.  He initially began his writing career crafting stories for comic books and then moved into short fiction for pulp magazines of the 1940s.  In order to make a down payment on a new home he wrote his first novel I, The Jury in 19 days and it was published in 1947.  The book sold over 3.5 million copies before the first movie version was filmed in 1953.  A subsequent remake was filmed in 1982.  Most importantly, this novel introduced readers to the iconic main character, ultimate “tough guy” private investigator Mike Hammer.
     The story is a good one.   It is told in the first person perspective by Mike Hammer.  Jack Williams, one of Hammer’s war buddies (like Spillane, Hammer is a WW II veteran) is killed following a cocktail party which he hosted.  Jack is a former police officer who lost an arm in the War and works as an insurance investigator.  Called to the murder scene by a mutual friend, detective Pat Chambers, Mike Hammer makes a solemn vow to find and kill the perpetrator, not wanting to rely on the justice system to avenge his buddy.
     What follows is a classic procedural as Chambers and Hammer conduct parallel investigations, focusing on the party guests.  Both investigators have problems finding anyone with the opportunity or the motive to commit the crime.  The difference in the investigations is that Hammer procures information in unorthodox and often illegal ways.  The characters are complicated and the perpetrator, when finally revealed, is surprising.  The author writes in short, descriptive sentences illustrating that he honed his writing skills on short fiction.  This does not detract from the novel.  In fact, it is actually refreshing to read a story not encumbered by unnecessary facts or digressions:

“The sorrow drifted from her eyes, and there was something else in its stead.  It was coming now.  I couldn’t tell what it was, but it was coming.  She stood tall and straight as a martyr, exuding beauty and trust and belief.  Her head turned slightly and I saw a sob catch in her throat.  Like a soldier.  Her stomach was so flat against the belt of her skirt.  She let her arms drop simply at her sides, her hands asking to be held, and her lips wanting to silence mine with a kiss.’       
     I, The Jury is certainly dated.  Sexism and racism abound.  The author’s characterization of African-Americans is absolutely brutal.  Spillane’s stereotypical black dialogue and roles (maid, bartender, shoe-shine boy) reflect the extreme prejudice and segregation which existed in the 1940s.  The book was considered decadent at the time and was generally dismissed by critics because of the amount of explicit sex and violence which Spillane included in this and subsequent novels.  There is a definite chauvinistic attitude towards women here and the sex and violence is far from subtle but I, The Jury is still very tame by today’s standards.   Interestingly enough one of the most outspoken early advocates of Mickey Spillane’s work was none other than Russian-Ameerican novelist, philosopher and playwright Ayn Rand.

      I enjoyed reading I, The Jury and I expect that I will read more Mickey Spillane.  It is fairly obvious how much contemporary crime fiction writers owe Spillane for almost single-handedly creating the genre.   The man could certainly tell a great story.  

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