After reading James M. Cain’s book, The Postman Always Rings Twice, I thought I’d take another dip into the world of noir crime fiction. This time, I tried one of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels: Kiss Me, Deadly. I chose this particular one because I’ve got the film in my Netflix queue a couple of weeks from now, and I wanted to get to the book first, since I hear they’re quite different from each other.
This world was one shade darker even than noir. You know how white wine made from red grapes is called blanc de noirs? Well, this was noir de noirs, starting in the underworld and digging deeper. Mike Hammer picks up a desperate hitchhiker in the mountains, and before he can find out what kind of trouble she’s in, she’s dead, his car’s been pushed down the mountain, and he’s been sapped so hard between the eyes that he can hardly remember his own name. No one does that to Mike Hammer. The rest of the book is about his relentless digging to find out what happened to his passenger: who she was, who wanted her, and why. What he finds out leads him to beautiful dames, interference from federal agents, and people with more bullets than he has — and deadly kisses.
This book riveted me. It was incredibly fast-paced, never stopping to think for an instant. I could be wrong, but I don’t remember Hammer ever sleeping (unless knocked unconscious) or eating. It’s violent, too: Hammer is a ball of rage when he’s crossed, and has trouble putting the anger back in the box once it’s out, even when he knows it will serve him best. The ending is satisfying, and all the pieces fit together, and Hammer’s girlfriend, Velda, is brave, sexy, and smart all at the same time.
Still, I couldn’t help comparing this to the Spenser mysteries by Robert Parker, mostly because it’s blindingly obvious from the style that Spillane must be Parker’s literary hero. (In some places, reading Kiss Me, Deadly, I felt as if the early Spenser mysteries were a pastiche!) Now, I love the Spenser mysteries, and it’s partly because they are what Kiss Me, Deadly was not. Spenser has a sense of humor; Hammer bares his teeth in a ferocious grin. Spenser works with his girlfriend Susan and his friend Hawk (and often others); Hammer is the cat that walked by itself. Spenser has thought out and articulated (maybe too much for some) what drives him, what makes him who he is, and what part of that can be changed before he loses his identity; Hammer kills. Some noir purists would probably disagree with me completely. Hey, what can I say; I’m a 21st-century feminist with a funnybone.
I really enjoyed this book, full of tougher-than-nails heroes and sexy jungle-cat women and slimy villains. But I probably won’t pick up another Spillane anytime soon. A little goes a long way for me.