The Long Reach of Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury

By , Contributor
Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, his famous hard-boiled detective novel featuring Mike Hammer, enjoyed instant success in 1947, and Spillane realized that he was onto something.  He wrote so many popular action-packed novels that by 1980 he was responsible for seven of the top 15 all-time best-selling fiction titles.

I-the-Jury.jpgIn I, the Jury Mike Hammer tracks down the villain, the symbolically named Dr. Charlotte Manning, a psychiatrist. Just about everybody in America in the fifties read the scene in which she strips as she pleads with him not to shoot her.

We can understand what I, the Jury means for us today if we expand the title. Mike isn’t just the jury; he’s the judge, jury, and executioner all in one. The word for what he has, and the word that matters, is autonomy. Autonomy matters because it’s the key to the way I, the Jury set the template for future action heroes.

After I, the Jury action heroes had to be autonomous, so writers put them in situations in which they could--or had to--act on their own. That’s what happens, for example, to the Gary Cooper character in the classic western High Noon. He seeks the help of the townspeople, but they desert him, and he has to take on the bad guys by himself, which makes him all the more heroic.

Mickey Spillane’s heir is probably Vince Flynn, in his very successful novels about CIA operative Mitch Rapp, beginning with Term Limits, in 1997. Although Rapp works for the CIA, he flaunts his autonomy by talking a lot about how his supervisors don’t like his methods, which are to use whatever level of violence he considers necessary in the moment - and to hell with rules and regulations.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a very different CIA agent in Patriot Games, of course, but when Sean Miller attacks Ryan's wife and daughter, he starts his own investigation, although his supervisor tells him that he’s not a field agent and should stay out of it. And of course in the end it comes down to a fight between he and Sean Miller

Although there’s a world of difference between Mike Hammer and Robert B. Parker’s great detective Spenser, we learn that at one time Spenser worked for the state police but left because he couldn’t deal with authority. And Spenser has a prickly relationship with Martin Quirk, head of homicide for Boston PD, that demonstrates his autonomy and freedom from official rules.

Still, autonomy is where you find it. Sometimes it’s even in outer space, as when Luke Skywalker is making his bombing run to destroy the Death Star. At the crucial moment he shows his autonomy by turning off the computer as Obi-Wan whispers, “Let the force be with you.”

So what it comes to is that although no popular novelist today would create such a sexist hero as Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane’s two-fisted—and autonomous—hero left a legacy that is still going strong.

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