Brian L. Tochterman: Birth of a Vigilante

cover photo for tochtermanToday we have another guest post by Brian L. Tochterman, author of The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear. In this eye-opening cultural history, Brian Tochterman examines competing narratives that shaped post–World War II New York City, revealing how elite culture producers, planners and theorists, and elected officials drew on and perpetuated the fear of death to press for a new urban vision.

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I’m not letting the killer go through the tedious process of law. – I, the Jury (1947)

This year marks the 70th birthday of Mike Hammer, the hypermasculine private investigator that sprung from the imagination of his creator Mickey Spillane onto the pages of pulp fiction after World War II. Mike Hammer was Spillane’s Ubermensch, a perfected representation of himself that seemed to fill a canker left by the writer’s involvement, or lack thereof, in the war effort. Spillane was a product of working-class Brooklyn and New Jersey, who entered the comic book industry in the late 1930s, fleshing out a prototype of his ideal protagonist in a strip called “Mike Danger.” When the war came, Spillane never made it further than the base camps of the American south. When he published I, the Jury in 1947, his alter-ego was a Pacific front hero returning home to New York City “anxious to get some of the rats that make up the section of humanity that prey on people.”

In his seminal ode to the work of Dashiell Hammett, “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944), Raymond Chandler codified the pulp detective as a man “who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid . . . a man of honor . . . the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” Hammett’s Sam Spade was such a man, as was Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. By no means perfect, each was a beacon of morality among the darkness and shadows who sought justice in both the netherworld and on terra firma. They specialized in the art of detection, a skill that implied intelligence, cunning, and a hunger for truth. Spillane’s detective, however, would struggle to meet these standards. Certainly Mike Hammer was not afraid, but by nature he was mean, unforgiving, and not quite a good enough man for any world. In fact, his worldview was rather narrow, a xenophobe who only found comfort among “my kind of people,” that is the white working-class ethnics leaving the city en masse.

Then again, Mike Hammer was not a private investigator. Sure, that is his official title, but within the plots of Spillane’s novellas Hammer’s primary role is that of a New York City vigilante. Revenge is his motivation, and the “work” being done is not that of a hired job, rather, it was Hammer superseding traditional police channels such as the NYPD and the FBI. Titles like I, the Jury and Vengeance is Mine (1950) signal that sensibility, if not loose interpretations of the bill of rights. Violence and sexuality were supercharged, and postwar audiences ate it up. Despite disdain from the critics – one called him “the most dangerous man in America” – Spillane’s first six Hammer novellas, published in 1947-1952, sold more than 70 million copies. Spillane’s New York City was the fantasy world in which millions of Americans, stifled by the conformity and terror of the Cold War, escaped.

Mickey Spillane: The Body LoversAs I argue in The Dying City this was a fantasy universe with critical consequences for the real world. Normalizing the vigilante was one key contingency of Spillane’s bestselling writing. Hammer was by no means the first, he’s preceded in time and succeeded in fame by Batman among others, but he did demonstrate that the vigilante no longer had to hide behind a mask or escape into a cave. He could operate in public, carry a private detective’s shield and a licensed gun and kill suspected criminals because “I like to shoot those dirty bastards.” In my book I connect Hammer with his filmic counterparts in 1970s New York, in particular Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) of Death Wish, and their unfortunate 1980s analogues like Bernard Goetz, the so-called subway vigilante, or the teenage terrorists of Howard Beach, Queens.

At 70, however, I cannot help but see the ethos embodied by Mike Hammer within the culture examined in my colleague Angela Stroud’s book Good Guys with Guns (also by UNC Press). As Stroud argues, concealed handgun licenses allow their holders “not only to feel that they are safe in a world that they perceive is increasingly dangerous; their licenses also confirm that they are one of the good guys, a status that is about much more than not breaking the law.” In his world, Mike Hammer was the rare citizen with the legal capacity to carry a sidearm – Spillane’s fictional New York City was also governed by the Sullivan Act (1911), which essentially limited handgun licenses to law enforcement – and that, combined with delusions of righteousness, rendered him a perceived force of good in a violent, morally decaying city. A gun license also implied a license to kill, giving the possessor the ability to rewrite the law they saw fit, and then to deal with the consequences later after the voices of moral objection had been silenced. That is what, despite being a somewhat forgotten elder, makes Mike Hammer sound so familiar.

Brian Tochterman is assistant professor of sustainable community development at Northland College. Read more of Brian’s posts for the UNC Press blog inspired by The Dying City.