Dangerous American Cousin: Mickey Spillane and Ian Fleming

Words by Benjamin Welton

Hammer

Mickey Spillane

Born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn, Mickey Spillane cultivated a type of working-class snarl that was always directed at those numerous critics who frequently labeled him popular culture’s chief cheerleader for Fascism. In turn, Spillane took potshots at his supposed betters, and once quipped that:

“Those big-shot writers … could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”

Well, during his heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s, Spillane’s brand of peanuts sold well, despite, or maybe because of how widely loathed he was by his peers and the New York Times. In particular, Spillane’s tough-as-nails private detective Mike Hammer became a cultural icon because he upped the ante in terms of sex (unlike the private eyes before him, Hammer routinely sleeps with both his female clients and adversaries) and sheer killing capacity. Take for instance the opening chapter of One Lonely Night:

I never really gave him a chance. All I moved was my arm and before he had his gun out I had my .45 in my fist with the safety off and the trigger back. I only gave him a second to realize what it was like to die then I blew the expression clean off his face.

In One Lonely Night, Hammer’s adversaries are homegrown Communists, and therefore their deaths are all part of a larger war. Although Richard Lingeman describes Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels as a “sexy read” for college boys in his book The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War, the truth is that the Spillane novels present a type of cynical worldview wherein enemies are ever-present and friends are few. Justice then is the domain of one lonely man, and the worse the world is, the more the lonely knight’s armor must change from muted white to near-black.

410px-Mikehammer13154It should be no surprise that a direct line can be drawn from Mike Hammer to Dirty Harry to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. But what might surprise many is the connection between Spillane and Ian Fleming. Partially because of the books, but even more so because of the films, James Bond is often regarded as the classy British alternative to the hulking American stereotype. While the typical American P.I. in fiction is a working stiff who rarely has any luck with women (or even wants anything to do with them in the first place), Bond is the cosmopolitan charmer who can just as easily woo a woman as he can deactivate a nuclear bomb. To top it off, he does all of these things while sporting a cultured accent that sounds worlds away from the harsh consonants of either Brooklyn or Boston.

Illustration by George Almond

Illustration by George Almond – Courtesy of http://www.007magazine.com

The only problem with this image of Bond is that it misses one incredibly important point: Bond’s a killer. Especially during the early novels, Bond is described as a “wonderful machine” who thinks of “nothing but the job on hand.” In Casino Royale, the suave male ideal that would later be promoted in the pages of Playboy magazine is cold, harsh, and frequently thought of as a “blunt instrument” of London. In sum, Fleming’s original Bond is a kindred spirit of Mike Hammer, and this fact has been noted by no less of an authority than Italian academic and novelist Umberto Eco.

While Fleming acknowledged that Spillane was an influence behind the creation of James Bond, Fleming and Bond proved to be a direct influence on Spillane. Between 1964 and 1966, Spillane took a break from Mike Hammer in order to create Tiger Mann (yes, that’s his real name), a tough secret agent for a private organization which is dedicated to eradicating Communism once and for all. Since he was created during the height of the world’s mania over spies and spy fiction, Tiger Mann has to be seen as a direct disciple of Bond, his far more famous progenitor.

Mann, like Hammer, is a World War II veteran who refuses to forget what he learned on the battlefield. Unlike Hammer, who was an enlisted Marine in the Pacific Theatre, Mann got an early taste of intelligence work while operating for the OSS late in the war. After coming home, Mann was recruited by a shadowy private organization dedicated to stopping Communism, and in every one of Spillane’s four Tiger Mann novels, this small, unnamed organization picks up the weight left untouched by those governments who are unwilling to confront the agents of Moscow head-on.

Whereas the Bond novels often promote a vision of postwar England that was far rosier than the real McCoy, the Mike Hammer and Tiger Mann novels make no such illusions. According to American Conservative writer Stephen B. Tippins Jr., the appeal of James Bond goes well beyond the well-tread accusations of “sex, sadism, and snobbery.” In fact, Tippins contends that besides glorifying older standards of masculinity and patriotism, the Bond novels and films also present a romanticized vision of Great Britain, America’s predecessor in global policing and technological advances:

007’s Britain is antiquated. It’s not the Britain of Cameron and Clegg. It’s the one with a penchant for staying tyrants—of either the mustachioed or the vertically-challenged variety—and the one that gave us pocket calculators, steel warships, jet airplanes, and loads of other cool stuff. Bond’s Britain is relevant, wealthy, and influential, still a beacon of Western ingenuity.

Ironically, while Fleming gussied up Great Britain just as the empire was shrinking abroad and the economy was struggling at home, Spillane was portraying America, the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country, as a rotting urban megalopolis with New York City as its chief war-zone. In the Tiger Mann tales, the world is full of craven cowards who hide behind weak and inefficient bureaucracies when they should be spending their energies on battling the red menace in Eastern Europe and East Asia. The Tiger Mann novels don’t present reality (although they can “get at” the truth, novels are invariably unreal because they are by definition fictional), but they get closer to the grimy truth than most things in the James Bond canon.

death-dealers-mickey-spillane-1966-bookIn the grand scheme of things, the Tiger Mann novels merely present Mike Hammer as a spy. The difference between One Lonely Night and, say, 1965’s The Death Dealers are minimal. At the heart of everything Spillane ever wrote is what Ayn Rand, an avowed fan of Spillane who once lumped him in with Fleming and Donald Hamilton as one of the best thriller writers of his generation, called an “objective psycho-espistemology.” In other words, Spillane “provides the facts and expects the reader to react accordingly.”

Rand’s The Romantic Maifesto, which compliments Spillane and Fleming, two writers who created popular “Romantic heroes,” by labeling them as Leo Tolstoy’s superiors, does much to unite the worlds of Bond and Hammer/Mann as shared representations of a more heroic ideal in the face of crippling, academically-sponsored nihilism. Whether or not this is the case (I personally tend to lean towards Rand’s point-of-view, especially in regards to the awful dreck that Tolstoy wrote), it’s undoubtedly true that both Spillane and Fleming sought to create fiction that was out-of-step with the mood of the times, no matter how current their subject matter was.

For Fleming, writing the Bond tales provided a way to remake Great Britain was a superior entity in the midst of worldwide decline, while Spillane got his hands dirty trying to make his detective and his spy the leaders of a new consciousness – an individualistic and right-wing mentality that refused to apologize for the rightness of the American cause and had no time for moral corruption or egg-headed softness. In this regard, Fleming and Spillane meet as two popular purveyors of attitudes and philosophies for those whom President Richard Nixon would later call the “silent majority.”

This is the very reason Fleming and Spillane are so often reviled by the professoriate, and conversely its one of the reasons why they remain both so popular and relevant.

Incidental Intelligence

A Writer, Pure and Simple

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6 thoughts on “Dangerous American Cousin: Mickey Spillane and Ian Fleming

  1. I had thought Fleming was on record as dissing Spilliane’s books, but I haven’t been able to find the remark yet. Spillane might have influenced Bond, but there was already a hard-boiled British tradition in thriller-writing, exemplified by Peter Cheyney, to whom Fleming was often compared when the first Bond novels were released.
    Also, Fleming might have felt flattered by Rand but I don’t think he’d have agreed with her–his choice for a desert island book was War and Peace.

    • Matthew Parker’s Goldeneye book reminded me that Fleming actually references Spillane in chapter 7 of Diamonds Are Forever. After entering America, Bond looks over a mobster:
      “Bond noticed a square bulge in his hip-pocket. It was about the shape of a small-calibre automatic. Typical, thought Bond. Mike Hammer routine. These American gangsters were too obvious. They had read too many horror comics and seen too many films.”

      • Good point.

        I also came across a ref to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe in OHMSS I’m re-reading on account of all this damned snow. M and Bond at Quarterdeck, M in great form discussing painting his flowers and that ‘overweight detective’ who paints orchids. Both approve of the books however.

  2. What a great article!
    I got into Spillane after Bond books were banned at the English public school at which I was incarcerated between ’61 and ’69.
    The silly bastards took our Fleming away whilst we openly read the much more violent and sexually explicit Spillane – ironic!
    The first Hammer book I read was ‘My Gun Is Quick’ and I remember being mightily impressed.
    Of course, they were quite different propositions. Fleming was much more literate, better researched and reflected much more of a world view. Spillane on the other hand, was a more simplistic writer and for the most part his stories were firmly rooted in a very apocalyptic NYC.
    That said they had one great thing in common – they were both master story tellers!

    • Well, I am glad you both read the article. It’s certainly true that Spillane was more simplistic, violent, and “spicy” than Fleming, whereas Fleming was much more literate. As for Peter Cheyney, he deserves an article all of his own. He, like Sapper, can certainly be used as examples of early British hard-boiled, which was percolating at the same time as the more beloved American version.

      In regards to Fleming’s opinions of Spillane, he did admire the man as a writer a lot (especially in comparison to peers), but I wouldn’t be surprised if that opinion slipped as the 1960s wore on. When Spillane returned to writing after about six years, he not only seemed like a Korean War-era fossil, but his skills had noticeably weakened. And I’m sure Spillane, Rand, and Fleming would’ve made a rather interesting and highly combustible cocktail party. My guess is that Spillane and Fleming would’ve been drinking in the corner by hour one, while Rand would be pontificating alone somewhere.

      Finally, Mr. Craggs, I am so glad you were freed from your incarceration. Any public school that would toss out Fleming in favor Spillane seems like a place prone to making bad decisions.

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