Whilst waiting for some books to arrive, I decided to look around my room for something to read in the meantime. And, to my surprise, I stumbled across an omnibus of three of Mickey Spillane’s “Mike Hammer” novels.
According to the reciept that was still in the book, I’d bought it about eight or nine years ago, presumably because of the connection to the film noir genre. But, at the time, I didn’t read more the first ten pages or so of it for some reason.
So, because it’s been a while since I’ve read an old-school noir detective novel (the only two I’ve read recently are Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window” and Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon“), I thought that I’d check out Spillane’s 1947 novel “I, The Jury”.
So, let’s take a look at “I, The Jury”. Needless to say, this review will contain some plot SPOILERS.
The novel begins with tough guy New York P.I. Mike Hammer finding that his old war buddy Jack has been shot. Mike’s friend on the police force, Pat Chambers, is already at the crime scene and isn’t entirely impressed when Mike swears bloody vengeance against whoever killed Jack.
Still, despite Mike’s murderous speech about what he’s going to do to the culprit, Pat and Mike are friends. So, they decide to see who can get to the killer first. Will Pat arrest the murderer? Or will Mike get there first and dispense harsh vigilante “justice” with his .45?
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it isn’t perfect, this story is surprisingly gripping. Although I knew that pulp novels/ noir detective novels were a precursor to the modern thriller novel, nowhere is this clearer than in this novel. Not only is this novel written in a fast-paced way that is still grippingly readable even today, but it also contains a brilliantly thrilling premise too.
Although I’ll talk more about the writing style later, one of the things that makes “I, The Jury” so gripping in comparison to other noir detective novels from around the same time is just how streamlined the plot is.
Yes, there’s still the traditional complicated web of criminal intrigue, but this is slightly more of a background detail and it is also explained more clearly than it would be in, say, a Raymond Chandler novel. In other words, the plot of this old novel reads a lot more like a noir-influenced modern thriller than a classic noir detective novel.
Yet, at the same time, this novel is about as noir as you can get. In fact, whilst reading the first couple of chapters, I actually began to wonder whether it was a parody of the noir detective genre… until I realised that all of the parodies were probably based on novels like this one.
Yes, this novel might lack some of the atmosphere and descriptive depth of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel, but if you want to see a distilled, somewhat simplified version of the noir genre (warts and all), then this book might be worth a read.
But, saying all of this, the story’s simplified plot works really well on some levels. Although most classic noir detective writers tried to show the complicated, messy reality of crime and detection, this novel has a much more stylised plot that ensures that the reader is never confused. In other words, it’s written more like a modern thriller novel. Every now and then, there will be a moment of drama or violence that helps to keep the story moving quickly. Likewise, there are even occasional recaps where Mike sits down and thinks about the case.
In terms of the writing style, it is surprisingly similar to the “matter of fact” style that you’d expect to see in a modern thriller novel. The novel is narrated by Mike Hammer and, as such, the narration is the kind of gruff, fast-paced “tough guy” narration that goes well with this kind of character.
Yes, this does rob the story of some of the descriptive atmosphere of other vintage noir detective novels (seriously, many of the relatively few detailed descriptions in this novel are of women that Mike is attracted to). But, it means that this story’s writing style is a lot more readable and fast-paced than the average vintage noir detective novel.
As for the characters, let’s just say that it’s a well-known fact that Spillane originally envisaged Mike Hammer as a comic book character. If you’re expecting complex, well-written, realistic characters here – then you’re going to be disappointed. In other words, the characters are a collection of stereotypes. And, yes, “stereotypes” is probably the right word to use.
Whether it is the cartoonishly “hyper-manly macho man” protagonist, pretty much all of the story’s female characters and/or the utterly cringe-worthy way that the story’s African-American characters are depicted, “stereotypes” is probably the best word to describe the characters in this novel. Yes, it’s a novel from 1947. But, novels with more nuanced and well-written characters existed back then too.
Thematically, this novel is rather interesting. In essence, it is an exploration of the subject of vigilanteism. The whole novel is spent following Mike’s quest for brutal vengeance, and the various ways he justifies this to himself, his police friends and the reader. Yet, when he does eventually find the killer and get revenge, the scene in question is shown to be grimly depressing rather than celebratory (despite Mike’s pronouncement that killing the criminal was “easy”). It’s a really clever way of emphasising that Mike is basically no better than the criminals he rails against.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is brilliant. Not only is this novel filled with carefully-placed moments of drama which ensure that the story never really slows down too much. But, in the omnibus I read, the novel is a gloriously efficient 147 pages in length too 🙂 Seriously, I say this in many of my reviews, but I really miss the days when short novels were popular 🙂
As for how well this seventy-two year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. On the one hand, the writing style is almost comparable to more modern thrillers and the story is still extremely gripping when read today. On the other hand, this novel is absolutely saturated with the very worst attitudes of 1940s America (eg: sexism, racism, homophobia etc..) and will be fairly cringe-worthy when read today.
But, on a slightly more cheerful note, at least some of the novel’s old-timey slang is absolutely hilarious when read today (eg: in a move that would probably impress Sigmund Freud, Mike Hammer keeps referring to his gun as a “rod”). So, yes, this book hasn’t aged entirely well…
All in all, whilst this certainly isn’t a perfect novel by any stretch of the imagination, it is a lean, gripping thriller that is astonishingly readable for a novel of this vintage. Yes, the characters are two-dimensional stereotypes, the plot is a little simplistic when compared to other classic noir detective novels and many parts of this story are utterly cringe-worthy when read today. But, despite all of these flaws, this novel still works reasonably well as a thriller.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and a half.