Mickey Spillane’s Hell of a Town

By Brian Tochterman

Across the banner of “The Metropole” as I write spans the George Washington Bridge, the majestic and modern steel link between the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and the city of Fort Lee, New Jersey, although those that cross it typically seek points far beyond those two ends. The “GWB” serves as the mise-en-scene for the opening scene of Mickey Spillane’s cold war novel One Lonely Night (1951), a place where his protagonist alter-ego Mike Hammer seeks solace from a “soft little judge” who has spurned him Downtown. As Hammer narrates,

Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.

The grand suspension bridge, then, becomes the setting for Spillane’s hard-boiled suspense. Hammer stands there considering a choice: his work as a New York City private investigator/vigilante or a move to the emergent suburbs somewhere on the other side of the bridge, perhaps with his loyal secretary Velda, “to start up in real estate in some small community where murder and guns and dames didn’t happen.” When a murder-suicide tied to a communist conspiracy within the city effectively falls at Hammer’s feet, the choice is easy.[1]

Mickey Spillane understood both sides of the bridge. He was born in Brooklyn, but spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In the late-1930s he came back to New York to work in comics, working on a character and strip called “Mike Danger.” He spent World War II in the service but on the homefront, flying planes across the American south. With the war over Spillane migrated from the comics to pulp novels, an industry that took off during the paperback revolution of the era. Over the next decade and beyond, Spillane carefully crafted an image of a working-class cold warrior. He was quick to call himself a “writer” not an “author,” lest he be considered soft or effete. In photographs he wore flannel and denim, and via his alter-ego protagonist, Mike Hammer, he corrected any perceived personal faults. Hammer, for example, was a decorated war hero who epitomized Arthur Schlesinger’s “vital center” vision of cold war masculine virility, took no prisoners (spoiler: he shot and killed them), and found himself both the object and subject of graphic seduction (by the standards of the time).[2]

The New York City of Spillane’s early Mike Hammer novels – the six he published between 1947-1952 were some of the bestselling books of the era – was the kind of place where crime, violence, and conspiracies often fell at one’s feet. Spillane’s representation of a city in the throes of crisis may have been a stand-in for the atomic anxieties of the immediate postwar era, but it was also quite prophetic about the discourse of cities like New York in the not too distant future. As I argue in my recent book, The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear, Spillane offered a template for a variety of commentators and cultural producers fearful of the changing face of New York in the post-World War II era.

Image3_Tochterman_The Dying City

Spillane was particularly adept at detailing the physical “blight” of so-called “slums,” not unlike the concurrent planners then making the case for urban renewal. He describes an area on Manhattan’s east side as “one of those shabby blocks a few years away from condemnation. The sidewalks were littered with ancient baby buggies, a horde of kids playing in the garbage on the sidewalks and people on the stoops who didn’t give a damn what the kids did so long as they could yap and slop beer.”[3] Midtown Manhattan’s 33rd Street, which at the time of his writing housed or abutted the Empire State Building, Macy’s Department Store and Herald’s Square, and the soon to be demolished Pennsylvania Station, was from Spillane’s perspective a “cemetery of buildings.”[4]

Yet as Spillane demonstrates, the city’s problem was not so much its declining physical state, but rather its entrenched racial enclaves and shifting racial and ethnic demographics. Hammer narrates a section on Harlem that labels the African American neighborhood “that strange no-man’s-land where the white mixed with the black and the languages overflowed into each other like that of the horde around the Tower of Babel,” with “strange, foreign smells of cooking and too many people in too few rooms.”[5] In more than one novel Hammer notes his unease within the geography of the city he knows well, seeking to get back to “my kind of people.” Those that “didn’t have dough and they didn’t have flash, but behind their eyes was the knowledge of the city and the way it thought and ran.”[6] With New York City’s growing population of southern African American and Puerto Rican migrants in this period, it requires a limited narrative leap to grasp the kind of people offering Hammer comfort: white working class ethnics then crossing the bridges en masse into the suburban hinterland of New Jersey and Long Island.

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In Spillane’s world, the volatile combination of physical decline and social disorder wrought the city’s “monster,” a permanent underclass of criminals that terrorized the city and its inhabitants with abandon and at random. It is the monster that stages drive-by shootings in wealthy, crowded districts and desensitizes citizens to violence. “This is New York,” he writes in Kiss Me, Deadly (1952). “Something exciting happening every minute. After a while you get used to it and don’t pay any attention to it. A gunshot, a backfire, who can tell the difference and who cares. A drunk and a dead man, they both look the same.”[7] There were a variety of neighborhoods where “murder isn’t uncommon,” and where “a killing…was neither important nor interesting enough to drag out the local citizenry in a downpour.”[8] This was fiction in the 1950s, a period recently hailed as the relative low point for violent crime statistics in New York City.[9]

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Motion picture lobby card for “I the Jury” shows stars Biff Elliot, Preston Foster and another actor in a scene from the film, 1953, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Mike Hammer, of course, is Spillane’s fantasy of a final solution to urban violence and disorder. In the pages of Spillane’s novels he never operates as a private investigator for hire, but rather a tangential victim or good guy with a grudge seeking revenge. This is evident from the opening of I, the Jury, where Hammer appears on the scene “anxious to get some of the rats that make up the section of humanity that prey on people,” and avenge the killing of a military brother. He informs a friend in the NYPD: “I’m not letting the killer go through the tedious process of the law…this time I’m the law and I’m not going to be cold and impartial.”[10] To Hammer, due process meant lawyers, judges, and juries finding ways to release pathological criminals back into the city.

Hammer’s heroic vigilantism has had considerable cultural power since, whether properly attributed to Spillane or not. From the law-and-order discourse of the 1960s emerged filmic imitators like Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan, who patrolled the streets of San Francisco killing crazed hippies and begging crooks to make his day. Rising crime rates and fears in New York made for a fertile climate of violent revenge fantasies. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) immediately comes to mind, but for me Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) of Death Wish (1974) is the quintessential 1970s analogue to Mike Hammer. A decade later fantasy would become reality through the act of Bernard Goetz, New York’s “Subway Vigilante,” who shot four young African American men alleged by Goetz to be armed and set to rob. It is not surprising that Spillane himself reemerged as a mainstream culture figure at this time, putting on his tough-guy act in beer commercials and commissioning a Mike Hammer television series.

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Mickeys Spillane’s bar in Hell’s Kitchen Manhattan, Ryan Reft, February 2018

As I have discussed elsewhere, the Spillane and Hammer worldview resonates today. It is found in the summoned fantasies of random violence met with gun-toting heroism propagated by the likes of the National Rifle Association and open/concealed carry advocates.[11] This trend departs from Spillane, however, because the environment that necessitates a Mike Hammer is no longer urban. The great fears of the vigilante wannabe or “good guy with a gun” – the home invasion, the car-jacking, the mass shooting – conjure a decidedly suburban setting. If someone strutted around New York today like an extra from a John Ford movie, they would likely get laughed out of town, not unlike Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969). But for Mike Hammer to be a viable character within the context of the 1950s, Spillane needed a setting like New York City to give his fantasies verisimilitude. In his depictions New York was a hell of a town. But it was his town, and, as Spillane writes in One Lonely Night, “they gave it to me gladly and wondered why I wanted it so nice and all alone.”[12]

Tochterman.B-350x350Brian Tochterman is Assistant Professor of Sustainable Community Development in the Department of Social Responsibility at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, where he teaches courses in land use planning, community development, and history. His research interests lie primarily in post-World War II urban history, and, most recently, is the author of The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear (UNC Press, 2017).

[1] Mickey Spillane, “One Lonely Night,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 2 (New York, 1951). 5-9

[2] On cold war masculinity see: K.A. Cuordileone, Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War (New York, 2005).

[3] Mickey Spillane, “The Big Kill,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 2 (New York, 1951). 196

[4] Mickey Spillane, “Vengeance is Mine,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 1 (New York, 1950). 387

[5] Spillane, “One Lonely Night.” 133.

[6] Mickey Spillane, “Kiss Me, Deadly,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 2 (New York, 1952). 418

[7] Ibid. 433

[8] Spillane, “One Lonely Night.” 114. Spillane, “The Big Kill.” 181.

[9] Ashley Southall, “Crime in New York City Plunges to a Level Not Seen Since the 1950s,” in New York Times. Dec. 27, 2017

[10] Mickey Spillane, “I, the Jury,” in The Mike Hammer Collection Vol. 1 (New York, 1947). 6, 14.

[11] See: Angela Stroud, Good Guys with Guns: The Appeal and Consequences of Concealed Carry (Chapel Hill, 2016)

[12] Spillane, “One Lonely Night.” 5.

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