My review last week (click here to read it) of Lady, Go Die!, the novel begun by the late Mickey Spillane and completed by Max Allan Collins, got a nice mention at Mr. Collins' blog (scroll down to "I love this review...", and yes, I'll be covering one of Mr. Collins' solo works in the near future). It also reminded me that the new book is a direct sequel to one of the most groundbreaking genre novels ever written: I, The Jury. Published in 1947, it was the first novel by Spillane after years of writing short stories for pulps and comic book scripts, and the first appearance of private eye Mike Hammer. It also created quite a sensation at the time for it's very frank approach to sex and violence.
From what I remember my parents and others from that time telling me, it wasn't a best seller upon it's initial publication in hardcover, but once it was reprinted in paperback (which in those days -1947-48- usually ran between twenty-five to fifty cents) with a strong media blitz, I, The Jury quickly became famous. Or infamous, as several supposedly clever critics then and now liked to say.
The very basic plot: Mike's friend and fellow PI Jack Williams, who lost an arm saving Mike during the war, is brutally and sadistically murdered. Vowing that the murderer will die "with a .45 slug in the gut, just a little before the belly button", rather than be tried by his peers in a court of law, Mike sets himself up as a one man jury and executioner. What follows is a fast-paced thriller that unfolds rapidly, as Mike connects Jack's murder to a number of suspects, which includes former bootlegger George Kalecki and his youthful friend (and possible gay lover), medical student Hal Kines, a pair of identical twin heiresses, Mary and Esther Bellamy, Jack's recovering drug addict girlfriend Myrna, and sexy blond psychiatrist Charlotte Manning.
Mike falls in love with Charlotte and in a very whirlwind courtship, proposes marriage to her. (He'll be the breadwinner when they're married.) In the meantime, the killer continues to strike, even as Mike discovers possible links between a brothel whose call girls are victimized into the "profession", a "dope ring" with influencial customers/addicts, and the last case Jack was working on before his murder. By the end, after numerous brutal fights (nobody wrote fight scenes better than Spillane), gun battles, several more deaths and some uncovered sleazy history behind several of the suspects, Mike finally confronts the killer in the shocking climax with the famous line, "It was easy."
Mystery fans weren't used to a tough guy vigilante hero like Hammer, who openly declares in public he'll put a bullet in the gut of his war buddy's killer. (Hammer would go on to pave the way for Ian Fleming's James Bond and other literary heroes, who were also quite open about their desires, violent and otherwise.) And the sex! Though Hammer declares fidelity to Charlotte, even trying to stay chaste until the wedding night, he still cheats on her -twice!- with another woman, whom he subsequently discards afterwards. Yet Mike redeems himself despite his now-outdated attitudes towards women and minorities (don't ask). In the powerful climax, after all the sordid things Mike's seen -the call girls blackmailed into working for the brothel, the ravaged drug addicts, Jack's killer's brutal murder spree, the killing of another friend- , Mike's now at the point where he's no longer just avenging Jack, but (symbolically) all victims unable to defend themselves. Mike Hammer, the Avenger of the Downtrodden, is born!
The pace never lets up, and though later novels in the series, including Vengence is Mine! (1950) and One Lonely Night (1951) are better polished and have even more of a crazed, near-psychotic rush to them, I, The Jury still stands out.
Currently still in print, I, The Jury can be borrowed from Greenwich Library via Interlibrary Loan. I've been a fan since my mid-teens many years ago of Spillane's stuff and I never pass up any chance to promote his work, much of which we do carry (click here). If you love fast-paced thrillers with solid storytelling, Mickey Spillane is for you!