As you may have heard, we’ve had a bit of inclement weather down here in Texas. Tuesday morning, around one a.m., the house was surrounded by six inches of snow. The temperature outside was 3 degrees. Because the power was down (not due to the rolling blackouts that had paralyzed the rest of the state but instead because some idiot drove into a substation) it was about 40 degrees inside of the house. It was cold, I was shivering, and I couldn’t sleep. So, I decided to sit in bed and read a book. Even though I had a flashlight with me, I quickly discovered that I didn’t need it. The snow outside was so bright that it actually generated enough light that I was able to read by it. That was actually kind of nice.
As for the book that I decided to read, it was an old paperback detective novel that I purchased at Half-Price Books a few years ago. (Half-Price Books has a wonderful vintage section.) Originally published in 1951, Mickey Spilliane’s One Lonely Night is one of the many books that Spillane wrote about the adventures of a tough New York-based private investigator named Mike Hammer. Many of those books were later adapted into films. 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly is probably the best-known. (And, of course, the much-missed Gary Loggins was quite a fan of Mike Hammer and the author who created him.)
One Lonely Night opens at night and with Mike Hammer in a bad mood. Earlier in the day, a judge scolded Hammer for being too quick to kill people, leaving Hammer to feel as if he was being portrayed as being some sort of blood-thirsty monster. When night comes, Hammer is still wandering around Manhattan and obsessing on the fact that he’s somehow developed a reputation for being violent and quick to kill. It’s interesting because, on the one hand, it’s hard not to feel bad for Hammer. His feelings have obviously been hurt and, as he explains in his hard-boiled narration, he only kills people who have to be killed. He doesn’t necessarily do it for fun though, at the same time, he doesn’t make any apologies for doing what he feels needs to be done. On the other hand, as you read the book, you can’t help but notice that Hammer really does kill a lot of people. When he’s not killing, he’s thinking about killing. He’s obsessed with violence and, even if he’s found a way to justify that to himself, it’s still hard not to be slightly disturbed by such a one-track mind. Hammer knows that he will never be able to escape his fearsome reputation and he also know that most people will never see him as being anything more than a murderer. But, at the same time, he also understands that important role that he, in his own ruthless way, plays in maintaining the proper balance between good and evil. He’s a former soldier, a World War II vet who one took as much pleasure in killing Nazis as he now takes in killing criminals. He’s frightening but he’s necessary.
As for the book’s plot — well, it’s hard to know where to even begin. It all starts with Hammer wandering around Manhattan and running into a mysterious woman being pursued by a male assassin. The woman, apparently thinking that Hammer is another assassin, jumps off a bridge rather than accept Hammer’s help. Hammer, who has just told us in glorious detail about how much he resents being called a killer, proceeds to kill the other man and then toss his body off the bridge as well. Before Hammer throws away the dead man, he uses the pavement to scrape off the man’s fingerprints because …. well, he’s Mike Hammer and he does stuff like that. (What’s interesting is that Hammer informs us about destroying the man’s fingerprints rather casually, as if it’s something that anyone would do under the circumstances.) Through a convoluted series of events, this all leads to Hammer investigating a politician who is being blackmailed by his twin brother and also uncovering a secret communist spy ring and a plot to steal a lot of very sensitive documents. Everything’s connected in its own strange way. Hammer seduced two communists, kills a lot of people, and spends a lot of time talking about how much he hates the weaklings who, in his opinion, are destroying American society. Hammer may not believe in much but he definitely believes in America.
The story is next to impossible to follow. One gets the feeling that Spillane simply made it up as he was writing it, without really worrying about whether or not everything really added up. When Spillane can’t come up with a logical way to connect the various elements of the story, he resorts to coincidence. Mike Hammer has a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yet, the story’s incoherence is actually one of the reasons why One Lonely Night works. The narrative messiness, mixed with Hammer’s unapologetically over-the-top tough guy narration, makes the story feel like almost a fever dream. Hammer walks through an increasingly surreal version of New York and only he seems to understand just how ludicrous the world has become. He’s neither as idealistic as his allies nor as cynical as his opponents. Instead, he’s an untouchable avenger, moving through the chaos and simply accepting that nothing makes sense beyond his own primal instincts. Hammer is the ultimate individualist, worrying only about himself and occasionally his secretary, Velda.
One Lonely Night is definitely a product of its time. One can only imagine the howls of rage that would greet the book if it were written today. In 1951, one could presumably get away with writing a novel about a private detective ruthlessly killing a bunch of political subversives. Today, of course, the book’s storyline would probably lead to an angry twitter hashtag campaign. Of course, what those readers would probably miss is that Spillane clearly doesn’t mean for us to take Mike Hammer all that seriously. At it’s best, the book is almost a parody of the classic tough guy posturing that we associate with pulp fiction. Hammer is so ruthlessly determined and his enemies are so incredibly weasely that it’s obvious that Spillane was having a bit of fun with both his readers and at the expense of his critics. Just as Hammer spends the book complaining about a judge who accused him of being too quick to kill, Spillane seems to saying to the critics of his style of writing, “You think pulp detective stories are sordid? I’ll show you sordid!”
I enjoyed One Lonely Night. It kept me entertained during one very cold night.