I, The Jury was Mickey Spillane’s first novel. Published in 1947, it marked the beginning of the Mike Hammer series – the relentless private detective with an eye for justice and a burning desire to see it done using whatever violent means he finds necessary.
It was the first of many novels by Spillane, who debuted towards the second half of the classic pulp era. In comparison, Dashiell Hammett had already long since published all the novels he was ever to make, Raymond Chandler had four novels under his belt, and James M Cain had long since written the three main novels he was to be remembered for. Spillane’s writing certainly has all the hallmarks of the classic works of noir fiction. The no-nonsense private detective, the femme fatale, the double crossings, the gangsters the drinking, and the smoking.
But what sets this private detective, Mike Hamer, apart from the Philip Marlowes and the Sam Spades before him is that whereas they typically always worked at the behest of a client (whether for good or bad), I, The Jury sets Hammer up as much more of a vigilante agent than any of the others could be. Arguably Hammett’s Red Harvest is a point of comparison, in how the Continental Op of that story takes it upon himself to clean up a town of decadence following the murder of his client. But it lacks the personal touch of I, the Jury, where Hammer is searching for the murderer of his close friend, Jack Williams. Hammer makes no qualms about it. He is after vengeance. Bitter, painful vengeance (Spillane makes a point of describing exactly what Hammer wants from the act), and he has no issue with explaining his intentions to his cop buddy, Pat Chambers.
On the way, he makes the acquaintance of a range of disturbed and interest characters. A pair of nymphomaniac sisters, a pimp luring young women into a life of prostitution, a cheap gangster, a young hooker, a stunning female psychiatrist, and he even has time to fend off the advances from his own secretary, Velda. Hammer even gets to enjoy a couple of ‘romantic’ encounters with some of them (a loose engagement is even touted around). In the end, Hammer gets his revenge. The last couple of pages, with the desperate actions of the murderess undressing herself in front of Hammer as he is explaining how she ‘did it’ in an attempt t seduce him before he shoots her square in the gut, is quite a jarring read. Hammer makes a point of saying that he knows there isn’t enough evidence that any jury would convict her, and so he makes the point of extracting the vengeance he wants himself. It’s certainly a memorable way of ending a novel.
But At the time of writing, the world had just come out of World War Two – the black-and-white morality (as Spillane’s friend Ayn Rand once described his works), is perhaps a reflection of the mood of the world following the events of that war.
Whether you see the book as a reflection of a post-war world, or just a classic piece of detective fiction, I, The Jury certainly delivers. It is fiction work. But fans of this genre aren’t to be put off by such comments. The world is dark and violent place. Spillane understood that. His work captures a mood and sense of morality (whether right or wrong) which is thoroughly distinct and, at its heart, it is a solid detective story and as far as debut novels in a series go, you can’t ask for much better.
Next up: My Gun Is Quick.