Hardboiled crime novels reached a new height of popularity in the late 1940s. Many scholars and fans point to Mickey Spillane as a catalyst for this pop-culture phenomenon. His debut novel, I, the Jury, was published in 1947 and became an instant runaway bestseller. The book introduced the world to the iconic Mike Hammer, a fictional private-investigator who pursues bad guys mostly in New York City. Hammer is known for his physical rough 'n tumble, unorthodox style gained from his U.S. Army experience in WWII. Hammer's closest friend is Pat Chambers, the Captain of Homicide in the NYPD. Hammer also has a continuous, flirtatious affair with his secretary Velda throughout the series. While I struggled to fully enjoy I, the Jury and found it rather flat, I wanted to attempt another Mike Hammer novel to see if it produced a different reading experience. My selection is the second installment, My Gun is Quick.
The novel begins with Mike Hammer having coffee at a neighborhood diner. An attractive, yet homely, woman takes a seat beside Hammer and asks if he’d buy her a coffee. Hammer, never turning away female companionship, obliges despite warnings from the diner's owner. After a brief conversation Hammer learns that the unnamed woman, who Hammer later refers to as Red, was probably in the prostitution game and is in a really bad place. Hammer feels a great deal of compassion for the nice woman and offers her some money to set her life on track. Happily, she thanks Hammer and the two go their separate ways. The next morning, Hammer learns that the woman was struck and killed by a drunk driver.
Hoping to help identify the woman, Hammer meets with Pat to examine the body. After finding some bruises and markings on the woman, Hammer suspects that she was actually murdered. Despite Pat's skepticism, Hammer starts investigating the woman's history and the events leading to her death after their chance meeting. The investigation takes Hammer into New York's call girl racket and a millionaire named Berin-Grotin. After Hammer learns about the girl's connection to one of Berin-Grotin's staff members, the wealthy businessman actually hires Hammer to investigate the murder further. Along the way, Hammer falls in love with a reformed call girl named Lola in some of the narrative's most effective scenes.
The first thing to know is that My Gun is Quick is a far superior novel to I, the Jury. While I'm sure Spillane and Hammer fans will disagree, Hammer is just way more dynamic in this novel. With I, the Jury, Mike Hammer is so deadpan. He's a gruff, loudmouthed detective that just came across as abrasive and crude. Further, in the series debut, Hammer really doesn't solve anything. Instead, the clues are nearly served to him on typewritten notes. Spillane's writing in My Gun is Quick provides so much texture to this character. Hammer is drawn to this unnamed woman with his client's voice is speaking to him from the grave. She's pleading for him to learn her identity and provide retribution for her death. The idea that Hammer may have caused her death by putting her back on the streets is just really clever writing. It's a brilliant, multifaceted narrative that has Hammer's pursuit of the killer as his own, personal attempt at forgiving himself.
My Gun is Quick is one of the best novels I've read of any genre. Mickey Spillane's masterful prose is saturated in gritty realism, emotional stress and a thick-laced, impending sense of doom throughout. If you read nothing else, please read this novel. My Gun is Quick is the quintessential masterpiece of hardboiled crime.
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