Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Mickey, We Hardly Knew Ye...
"I'm the most translated writer in the world, behind Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorki and Jules Verne. And they're all dead..."
My watch stopped the other day. I’m getting strange phone calls.
The whole world is going to hell faster than a greased pig on a water slide and now I find out Mickey Spillane is dead.
My gut tells me there's more to this than meets the eye.
Tuesday started off like any typical day. I got up and went to work. At lunchtime, I had...lunch. And when I got to my office that's when I saw it.
The LCD readout on my watch had disappeared.
I tried to recall when was the last time I actually looked at my watch, what time was it when I last checked the time?
I had gotten this watch on Canal Street years ago for about 10 bucks and I used to call it the watch that wouldn't die because no matter what I did, the thing kept on ticking away, so to speak.
And yet now here was, dead as Kelsey's nuts, as my father used to say. I don't know who Kelsey was and I really don't want to know what happened to his nuts, but that's for another day. At this moment, I had to deal with the Case of the Wasted Watch.
Things got stranger when I got home that night. I checked my voice mail and found I had four messages, a rare occurrence for me. I tapped on the keypad and heard a stranger's voice leaking into my ear.
"Cynthia, this is your husband...you left the number on the (unintelligble)...not very smart. Call me on my cell..."
I had no idea who this was, but I knew one thing for certain. My name isn't Cynthia. And I don't have a husband. So that's really two things I know. The second message had been left about an hour later.
"Cynthia, this is your husband again...please call me."
Same guy. I could tell by the voice that he was Hispanic, about 5' 10'', 189 pounds, lefthanded, walked with a limp, and had an unnatural fear of bowling alleys. Other than that I was drawing a blank.
Two more calls came after that. But each time, the caller hung up without leaving a message.
I was in over my head. I needed help, I needed somebody who was tough, fearless, willing to get his hands dirty. I needed a private eye.
I used to read private eye novels by the truckload when I was a kid. There was something about the modern day lone wolf, the big city gunslinger bringing his own brand of justice to a cruel and heartless world.
Private eyes dealt in danger, had exciting adventures, and bedded beautiful women. They lived by their own rules and didn't have to take out the garbage, study trigonometry, or deal with zits.
Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe was the top of the line. Chandler wrote great novels, with keen observations about mankind's capacity for evil. He once said the best mystery novels are the ones you read even if the last page is torn out and this shows in his work.
And then there's Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. It's been said that the heroes of many detective novels reflect what the author wants to be when--and if--he grows up. Mike Hammer is the personification of that theory.
The books are two-fisted wet dreams, where Mike, speaking in the first person, of course, is a fearless, unstoppable sex machine. He kills without remorse, fornicates without regret, and beats the ever-loving crap out of anyone who gets in his way.
The books were labled mysteries, but you'd have to be dumber than a sack full of lugnuts to miss the "who" in these "whodunits." Spillane took the old rule about having the murderer be the last person in the world you'd suspect and beat it into submission like Mike Hammer bitch-slapping a stoolie.
So if a story featured a blind nun with no legs who was confinded to an oxygen tent, well, by golly, there was your killer. Spillane would go through all sorts of cortortions and gyrations to get there, but he always arrived at his destination.
The sex scenes were laughable, at least by today's standards. The stories reeked of misogyny, xenophobia, and racism, and the villians were usually intellectual types who used flowery language and literary references to mock people...until Mike shot them, of course.
Spillane could write a good action scene, though. One of the novels featured Mike getting beaten by a group of thugs on a dark country road.
He's struggling to get out his trusty .45 while being mercilessly pummeled with clubs, and he finally does, Spillane describes how the gun blast illuminates the whole scene for a fraction of a second. It's been years since I read that scene and I still remember it.
Of course, diehard fans will know the famous ending of "I, The Jury," the first Hammer novel, when Mike assassinates his naked lover with a bullet to the gut. As she's dying, the lover, who is also the killer--I warned you, didn't I?-- asks Mike how could he do such a thing.
"It was easy," Mike said.
Spillane actually play Mike Hammer in the film of his novel, The Girl Hunters, where the bloodthirsty private eye literally nails a Commie agent to the floor. And Mickey appeared in a series of funny ads for Miller Lite, along with Rodney Dangerfield and a bunch of sports figures.
And, you know, say what you like about his writing abilities, Spillane got the job done. He produced copy and published books. For all my talk and high aspirations, I'm still trying to finish my novel. Maybe I can learn a thing or two from Spillane.
Cold and Rainy in L.A.
I started reading crime novels after I lost my taste for science fiction. I had no taste for Miss Marple or the other locked door mysteries. I wanted tough cops and private detectives.
I tried my hand at the genre many years ago, back when I was in high school. I wrote a six or seven-page story that takes place entirely in the hero's office and ends with him stepping aside and letting a weasely little loser get killed.
The first line read: "It was cold and rainy in L.A. I live in Brooklyn, so I didn't much care." I thought it was pretty cool back then, but I was much younger.
I created my own private eye, Nick Morocco. I took the name after one of my dad's customers and wrote about three or four stories featuring this guy in Brooklyn, with no license, no office, and apparently no common sense as he constantly got his rear end in a sling. I'm sure these stories around here some place, I'm just not so sure I want to read them.
When I was a kid I used to thumb through the Yellow Pages and look at the ads under "Private Investigators." They were mostly security companies, rather than lone wolf types, and most of them were dedicated to divorce work, unlike so many fictional private eyes who would never go near that sort of thing.
One ad featured a cartoony drawing of a detective with a deer stalker cap and magnifying glass. He was grinning cruelly, I thought, beneath a slogan that said "A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words." I was a child, so I wasn't sure what people would need a picture of, but it seemed kind of creepy.
I found one lone private eye in Brooklyn. There was no ad, just the name, Jack Nordell, a Court Street address, and a phone number. I pictured him as this tough-looking guy with a fedora, working out of his office beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. I found out later my geography was a little off. I don't know whatever happened to Jack Nordell.
One time the phone company mistakenly ran our home phone with a private detective agency. Every so often someone would call looking for a shamus and we had to explain the mistake to them.
I imagined what it would be like if I fibbed a little and actually took a case. I could solve it on my own and show everyone I had what it takes to be a private eye.
One time my mother picked up the phone and the woman at the other end of the line got right down to business:
"I want a man followed," she said, skipping any kind of greeting.
We never did find out what that woman's story was, but it sounds like a straying husband. It's ironic, too, that my mother took the call, because during the bad days of my parents' marriage--my mother called them "The Troubles"--she actually hired a private detective to follow my father.
My father was cheating on my mom with some tramp. He made very little effort to hide it and had become quite abusive to my mother. It got so bad around my house we all used to groan every night when we heard my father's car coming up the alley because we knew we were in for a night of screaming, fighting and misery.
My mother got the private eye just to make everything legal for the upcoming divorce.
Watching the Detectives
I remember the night she served the papers on him. The detectives showed up at our house and took my mother to the girlfriend's apartment. I remember one gray-haired man who looked like an-ex New York cop, all business in this light gray suit. I later found out that they angled their car up against my father's, so it would look like they had crashed into it.
Then they went upstairs, knocked up the apartment door and said there had been an accident and they needed to talk to my father. When he opened the door, my mother, who was standing in the hallway with the detectives, formally identified my father, the detectives served the divorce papers, and got the hell out of there.
My mom and the four kids took off for a hotel in the neighborhood where we lived like criminals, hiding from my father, I guess. My mother used the name "Helen Morgan" when she signed in, causing the clerk to mention a famous singer by the same name.
I called myself "Matt Morgan," my first official work of fiction. I wanted a bogus name, too. I wanted a whole new identity, someone who didn't have to live like this.
We got back to our house a few days later and found my father had smashed the front window with a brick and forced his way into the house. He wasn't around and when my brother and I left for school the next morning, my mother said if we saw our father we should keep walking.
Do not get into his car, she said.
We joined a few of our friends and walked half-a-block to Fifth Avenue, and there he was; my father was sitting in his car, waiting for us. He got out and approached us, and my brother ran like hell. He chased us for a few yards, but I guess thought better of it, not wanting to make a scene.
My brother and I took a convoluted route to school, trying to escape my father the way a good private eye would shake off a tail. We stopped in an alley one point and I asked my brother "do you see him?" We could have used Mike Hammer right about then.
When we finally got to school, our friends approached us, and I can still remember how their eyes bulged in disbelief at what they had just witnessed.
"What happened?" one of them asked.
I don't know what we said, what reason we gave to our friends for running away from our own father. I wanted to be Matt Morgan again.
My parents never got divorced. My father moved into our basement for a time, so the house was like Berlin under the Russians. There was a lot of tension, but he eventually talked his way back into our mother's life.
We were so angry with her, but I suspect as an unemployed woman with four children didn't have many choices back then.
Now my mother is dead, my father is so old and feeble it's nearly impossible to believe how this man once terrorized his wife and children. "The Troubles" were so long ago, it seems like fiction, an old episode of "Mannix."
My watched only needed a new battery. The guy who called me looking for his wife must have finally figured out he was dialing a wrong number and, I hope, tracked her down. Matt Morgan and Nick Morocco are dust-covered shadows from my childhood.
I don't read private dectective novels much anymore. They all seem the same, with the snappy patter, cut rate philosophizing, cardboard femme fatales. To me, the genre is as dead as Kelsey's nuts.
But I still tip my fedora to Mickey Spillane for taking me out for a spin through his world of neon, lipstick, and murder.
How could I do such a thing, you ask?
It was easy.