21.6.11

Mickey Spillane's Black Alley

Mickey Spillane has always evoked a wide range of responses from readers. No one, though, can argue about his popularity. “Estimates suggest global sales of around 200-million,” claims The Guardian. “By 1980, seven of the top 15 all-time bestselling fiction titles in America were by Spillane.” From the very beginning of his career, Spillane’s novels were bestsellers. His first Mike Hammer novel (I, the Jury) sold over 8 million copies. And the first mystery novel to appear on The New York Times best-seller list was a Mike Hammer book (Kiss Me Deadly). Spillane was awarded the prestigious Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America and the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Private Eye Writers of America.

Spillane grew up in a rough New Jersey neighbourhood, an experience that gave him firsthand knowledge of the world he depicts in his novels. His career as a comic-book writer and assistant editor for Funnies also helped shape his writing, inspiring an action-packed, fast-paced, highly visual style. Although Spillane was never a prolific author, he wrote detective fiction, children’s stories, comic books, short stories, and television/film scripts. Like his protagonist Mike Hammer, he was not a man to shun danger. During World War II, he flew fighter missions and trained fighter pilots.

Black Alley, Spillane’s 13th Mike Hammer novel, begins with the private investigator awakening from a coma after a near-brush with death. Once he is able to leave his bed, he visits an old war buddy, Marcos Dooley, who has also been recently shot. Just before Dooley dies, he gives Hammer a clue to the location of 89 million dollars of skimmed mob money. Against the advice of Hammer’s doctor who insists on complete bed rest for his patient, the private eye swings into action, battling both the mob and the federal government in order to find the money and seek vengeance for Dooley’s death.

The story is a heart-pumping, adrenalin-producing tale that is hard to put down. The suspense never lets up as Hammer takes one risk after another, defying his chances of remaining alive. When he first awoke from his coma, he was told by his doctor, “You almost went down the black alley. Nobody comes back from there” (6). The black alley is a haunting image that recurs throughout the novel.

In his New York Times review of the novel, James Polk points out that Black Alley “resonates with boys’-night-out boisterousness: the familiar he-man imagery is all in place . . . and bodies pile up at an exuberant rate.” Because the Mike Hammer books introduced sex and violence to the detective novel at a time when this was taboo, they were immediately vilified by critics. Reviewers have dismissed Spillane as a comic-book writer and many have objected to the way Hammer takes the law into his own hands. Knight calls the books a “mix of sadism and fantasy” (2004, 123); Symons objects to the fact that the vengeful Hammer is presented as a hero (1992, 142-43); and Rzepka finds repugnant “the sadism and voyeurism, the puritanical hypocrisy and misogyny, and the holier-than-thou disrespect for legal ‘niceties’” in his novels (2005, 219).

But as a reflection of Cold-War America, the novel is masterful. Spillane depicts New York as a frontier town much like “Dodge City was in the 1880s; the city is not completely civilized, and the innocent townsfolk are prey to the urban variety of rustlers and outlaws” (Collins 1998, 872). Spillane began writing the Hammer series as soon as he returned from the war. In an interview he was asked if Mike Hammer is a voice for the returning World War II vet. He replied:
When you came back from the service you’d had four years of a lifestyle change, your whole life had been altered and your vision of things was a little bit different. You had different ideas. You were mad at things, but there was no way to bring it out. So I wrote pretty dramatic, pretty rough stuff. That’s the way I felt. (Silet 1996, 201)
Black Alley will appeal to readers who like fast-paced, plot-driven, tough-guy novels.

Collins, Max Allan. “Mickey Spillane (b. 1918).” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 2: 869-84. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

Silet, Charles L. P. “An Interview with Mike Hammer’s Creator.” The Armchair Detective 29, no. 2 (1996): 200-201.

Spillane, Mickey. Black Alley. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.