Fiction Review: Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury (1947)
I, The Jury was written in 1947 and is considered a classic of early hard-boiled detective fiction. It was Mickey Spillane’s first novel starring the manly detective Mike Hammer, the last of which was published in 1996. I was attracted to the story after reading an interview with Spillane in our Mystery Fiction class and was interested in comparing him to the hard-boiled masters, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
With a title like I, The Jury, I should have known what I was getting into. I, must represent an individual, I thought, and The Jury presumably refers to a group of roughly 12 people. Therefore, if I and The Jury are one and the same, then this story must involve a pretty impressive I. Prepped as I was for an extraordinary protagonist, I was nonetheless impressed by the testosterone-laden drama emanating from each page of Spillane’s inaugural Mike Hammer adventure.
Hammer is a private detective whose close friend Jack Williams was brutally murdered. Williams had lost an arm in World War II saving Hammer’s life. While Williams was alive, Hammer was indebted to him; when Williams died, Hammer sought blind vengeance. He told the corpse of dead friend, “I’m going to get the louse that killed you. He won’t sit in the chair. He won’t hang. He will die exactly as you died, with a .45 in the gut, just a little below the belly button” (7).
Our society, while happy to execute criminals, doesn’t shoot them in the gut or anywhere else. Hammer, however, wasn’t simply dismayed that the electric chair lacks poetic justice, he was also dead certain that our system lacks the capacity for any justice. He told the investigating police officer Pat Chambers, “I’m not letting the killer go though the tedious process of the law. You know what happens, damn it. They get the best lawyer there is and screw the whole thing and wind up a hero” (6)! Hammer couldn’t let that happen. Hence, I, The Jury.
Hammer’s search for the killer leads him to a beautiful, buxom, blonde named Charlotte Manning. Looks, however, can deceive. Manning is a successful psychiatrist who counsels the elite of New York City. However, her physical and intellectual talents are no match for Hammer’s virility. Shortly after meeting, she breathlessly tells him:
“When you came to see me, I saw a man I liked for the first time in a long time. I have hundreds of patients and most of them are men, but they are such little men. Either they had no character to begin with or what they had is gone … when you constantly see men with their masculinity gone, and find the same sort among those whom you call friends, you get so you actually search for a real man. I diagnosed you the moment you set foot in my office. I saw a man who was used to living and make life obey the rules he set down. Your body is huge, your mind is the same. No repressions” (52).
Dubbed “a real man” by a smoking hot psychiatrist makes an impression on the normally dispassionate Hammer. He and Manning discuss the prospect of a closer relationship once Williams is properly avenged. Back on the case, he discovers that Williams was onto a prostitution and drug ring and suspects that he was likely killed by one of its operatives. He focuses on those who were with Williams on the night he was murdered. In doing so, he crosses paths with a local racketeer George Kalecki and his cohort Hal Kines and the glamorous Bellamy twins, one of whom is a nymphomaniac.
Through a series of dramatic confrontations Hammer connects the dots, always staying one step ahead of detective Chambers. The story ends with a surprising twist and a helpful explanatory narrative. Not surprisingly, Hammer emerges well positioned for the next adventure.
Before writing I, The Jury, Spillane wrote comic books. Often the action reflects this. For example, early in the story, Hammer interrogates George Kalecki and while spitting in his face tells him: “Listen to me you ugly little crook. I’m talking language you can understand. I’m not worried about the cops. If you’re under suspicion, it’s to me. I’m the one who counts, because when I find out who did it, he dies. Even if I can’t prove it he dies anyway. In fact, I don’t even have to be convinced too strongly” (18). Unfortunately, Spillane’s simplistic dialogue and description creates a two-dimensional story that generally fails to attain an admirable level of profundity.
For this reason, I, The Jury, probably won’t appeal to readers seeking depth of character. However, for those interested primarily in a racy, hard-boiled, who done it, Spillane serves up the goods. Hammer is the archetype of the alpha detective: he’s above the law, smarter than the cops, tougher than the thugs and irresistible to the dames. I, The Jury, allows him to demonstrate all of this within a plot interesting enough to keep the pages turning.
Unfortunately, we can’t all have a Charlotte Manning to assuage our egos and buck us up for the challenges ahead. Left to our own devices, many of us are resigned to seek in our heroes that which we cannot be. In this limited sense, I, The Jury, is well crafted. It requires little introspection; one can easily identify with Hammer’s virtues. Those content with a story only slightly more involved than a superhero saga will likely find I, The Jury thoroughly enjoyable.
I read the book on the beach this summer and it worked well for me in that context. However, Spillane’s writing clearly lacks the depth and subtlety of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon or Chandler’s The Big Sleep, two other books I read this summer. I enjoyed reading Spillane’s debut novel, but I’m more excited about exploring further works by these other masters.
Spillane, Mickey. The Mike Hammer Collection: I, The Jury, My Gun is Quick, Vengeance in Mine! New York: New American Library, 2001. Print