Vengeance is Mine
“I loved to shoot killers. I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do than shoot a killer and watch his blood race a slimy path across the floor. It was fun to kill those bastards who tried to get away with murder and did sometimes.”
Vengeance is Mine marks the third entry in the series featuring New York-based PI Mike Hammer – following on from I, the Jury and My Gun is Quick. This time around, Hammer wakes up in a hotel room following a difficult night of excessive drinking with an old buddy, Chester Wheeler, to find Wheeler dead, the result of an alleged suicide. For his troubles, the police take away Hammer’s licence and he is left facing a future away from the detective business.
Hammer, as almost a matter of routine, instantly suspects murder and works to uncover the circumstances surrounding his friend’s death. As before, his secretary/would-be-lover Velda is still on call, as his cop buddy and frequent yet begrudging source of information and support (not to mention incredible levels of leniency) Pat Chambers.
Beginning with investigating a modelling agency which Wheeler was known to be engaged with, Hammer eventually uncovers a crude blackmail operation taking place within the City’s prostitution rings. On the way, he encounters the usual share of shady cops, beautiful (and very willing) models, and a cast of devious gangsters and blackmailers. He sees to them in his usual, brutish, yet rather effective manner. The character of Velda features more prominently in his work than she did in My Gun is Quick. With Hammer left without a licence, Velda herself picks up the PI badge and actively works on the case, whilst getting slightly closer to finally winning her man with Hammer. Feeling aside, Hammer has no qualms in using Velda to smooth talk and distract a mafia goon to allow Hammer to operate…only until Hammer ears of her losing her chastity and has to rush to save her from her fate…(hey, it was 1950…).
The premise of the story is very comparable to I, the Jury in that Hammer spends his time seeking justice for a murdered friend, before unveiling a blackmail operation and concluding with him shooting the orchestrator dead in cold blood. There is, however, a certain degree of continuity established with this novel and the two which preceded it – Hammer often finds himself remembering the two main women he was engaged with before – Charlotte and Lola – and the memories of their deaths continue to haunt him. From that angle, it makes Hammer’s violent, iron-man approach to life a bit more understandable. It’s a level of continuity which other hardboiled detectives like Lew Archer and Philip Marlowe rarely ever received.
The comparisons with that previous work continue up to the book’s ending scene. This time round, however, there is a rather surprising and certainly unexpected final twist which arises in the final paragraphs of the book. After gloating over her as she dies from his gunshots and he then inspects the naked body before him, he discovers the woman he kills is in fact a man…explaining the ‘revulsion’ he felt in previous encounters (presumably these were feelings he had in-between his well-documented thoughts about how attractive and positively Goddess-like she looked). If nothing else, it is certainly an unexpected ending and oddly entertaining in a peculiar (and definitely non-PC) way.
In his day, Spillane was often accused of featuring excessive amounts of sex and violence in his works, which seemed to sum up the worst excesses and stereotypes of the hardboiled style of detective fiction. In reading his books, it’s not hard to see why – indeed, his books are a sort of written equivalent of a slasher movie, but they’re still fun to read. Vengeance is Mine is a good an example of this as any.
Overall it’s not a great detective novel – the story is much too reminiscent of I, the Jury to be truly considered an original entry, but nonetheless it is still a competent thriller and fits well within the formula set by Spillane’s previous works. At only 184 pages, it’s a short read (as are most of Spillane’s books), and certainly features and ending to remember, which neatly serves to balance out some of the predictability of the rest of the story. If you didn’t like the Mike Hammer book beforehand, then Vengeance is Mine certainly isn’t going to change your mind. But for those who do count among his fans, then it’s a reliable entry in the series.