End of the hardboiled era

Updated: Jul 30 2006, 05:30am hrs
The recent passing away of Mickey Spillane at the age of 88 has robbed the world of crime fiction of one of its foremost authors. Few readers of crime fiction could afford to be indifferent when it came to the merits of Spillane and his creation, Mike Hammer. Readers would either love or hate the pair. Judging by the sales, the former seem to have dominated. The first Mike Hammer novel, I, the Jury (1947), sold 8 million copies. The five that followed it were all multi-million copy sellers. In 1984, it was estimated that the aggregate sales of all of Spillanes novels were a staggering 160 million copies. The Hammer books inspired 10 films, a radio show, threetelevision series, and a syndicated comic strip. In the film, The Girl Hunters (1963), Spillane himself played Hammer.

In Mike Hammer, Spillane epitomised the hardboiled detective. Tough and hardtalking, disliked by both law-enforcers and law-breakers, Hammer generally had a cynical and jaundiced view of the world. Brought up in a violent world, Hammer preferred to let his gun (a 45) and his fists do the talking. There was no gentleness in his women either. They were tough, whether his girlfriend, Velda, or the women he had to destroy. I, the Jury ends with Hammer executing a naked woman, the beautiful blonde psychiatrist who has been pursuing him throughout the book and is the murderer of his crippled friend.

As with other writers in the genre of crime fiction, Spillane too began his career in writing for magazines. Many of his stories were featured in Manhunt, Cavalier and Male. Manhunt in its first 4 issues featured Spillanes story, Everybodys Watching Me as a four-part serial. These were mens magazines and initially Spillane thought his readership was predominantly male. Its only when Spillane realised that he had a large female following as well that he decided to turn to books.

Spillanes books are characteristic of the American genre of crime fiction as distinct to the English genre. It portrays a violent world of ruthless gangsters, corrupt police and officials, and detectives were ex-cops or even ex-criminals themselves. Apart from the violence, Spillane garnished his books with a liberal dose of sex and alcohol to portray a realistic world.

But most of all, Mike Hammer books portray a vigilante sort of justice, with Hammer pronouncing judgment the hard way. The titles best illustrate this tradition, Vengeance is Mine, My Gun is Quick and Kiss Me Deadly.

Spillanes influence began to wane in the 1960s. Mike Hammer was a creation of post-war 1940s and 1950s when America was a place where people could get rich and powerful, and not necessarily through legitimate means. Recognising his waning influence, especially in the era of the Cold War, Spillane first thought of turning Mike Hammer into a secret agent. But Spillane was not very comfortable with this and soon abandoned this to create a new character, Tiger Mann. Mann was an agent in the employ of Martin Grady, a right-wing billionaire with his own espionage organis ation. Mann was Spillanes answer to James Bond, and also his effort to come to terms with the Cold War. The Tiger Mann books, Day of the Guns (1964) and Bloody Sunrise (1965) featuring Manns encounters with Cold War villains sold reasonably well. But Manns adventures failed to match Mike Hammer books. They are imitations rather than the real thing.