Mike Hammer is a private investigator. His best friend Jack – the man who took a bullet and lost an arm for him during the war – has been killed. Mike vows – in front of a Homicide Captain no less – to find out who did it and kill them the same way.
I’m struggling to believe that even in 1947 Mike Hammer wasn’t seen as a joke. But even if I give him the benefit of the doubt the intervening 70 years haven’t been kind to him. He is, now, a caricature. Equal parts testosterone and bullshit. His morality is all over the place; he fantasizes about killing the bloke who tore his suit but baulks at the idea of crossing into a crime scene without approval. He admits to being in love with one woman in the morning but is snogging another the same afternoon. I could go on. His ‘insights’ about his fellow humans include such nonsense as “Now I know why she hadn’t married, no one man could satisfy her” (except Hammer himself of course) and the notion that as soon as two or more are alone together women get busy trying on each other’s clothes. WTF? He’s vain, bordering on psychopathic and not half as clever as he thinks he is.
The narrative too is a jumbled mess. There’s rampant nymphomania (as diagnosed by Hammer), enforced prostitution, a succession of women who all lust after Hammer and are universally encumbered with breasts desperate to escape the confines of clothing, a protagonist who thinks lipstick on his collar a bigger problem than the fact he orders alcoholic drinks by the dozen, drug addiction, a tennis match that serves no purpose other than to expose the one kind of casual bigotry the book had up to that point avoided and a half-dozen shootings. It’s no less contrived and implausible than the country house drawing room mystery in which upper class English folk drop like flies from obscure tropical poisons at which some hard-boiled fans (and writers) like to scoff. At least there is some creativity involved in dreaming up odd deaths; endless shootings and women itching to get naked around the ‘hero’ take no imagination whatsoever.
Good examples of the hard-boiled detective novel exist but this is not one of them. Reading it prompted me to dig out my copy of Raymond Chandler’s seminal essay on detective fiction (“The Simple Art of Murder”, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944) because I thought I remembered him having a dig at bad examples of his own preferred form of the art (after he’d dealt with the English golden age writers that is). And so he did
The realistic style is easy to abuse: from haste, from lack of awareness, from inability to bridge the chasm that lies between what a writer would like to be able to say and what he actually knows how to say. It is easy to fake; brutality is not strength, flipness is not wit, edge-of-the-chair writing can be as boring as flat writing; dalliance with promiscuous blondes can be very dull stuff when described by goaty young men with no other purpose in mind than to describe dalliance with promiscuous blondes.
I won’t pretend I haven’t cherry-picked from Chandler’s essay, nor that I agree with everything else he writes but if the cap fits…
There is a huge difference between reading a classic novel and an old one. For me I, THE JURY is an old novel whose time has, thankfully, long gone. The things that undoubtedly made it noteworthy at the time – the sex and violence – are tame by today’s standards and the things which make it noteworthy now – the undiagnosed PTSD of its lead character and everyone’s bigotry – need no more publicity in their unreconstructed form. It offers zero in the way of commentary that could, even with some massaging, be relevant today and doesn’t even explore the theme suggested by its title. The denouement – complete with striptease – is preposterous.
In short the book is boobs, booze, bigotry and bullets. Presumably all the things a white, American, male living in the aftermath of the second world war was looking for in a read but I’d rather gnaw off my own arm than venture down this literary path again.