Sep 15, 2010

Economic culpability in Mickey Spillane's The Big Kill

There's a spectre of economic culpability haunting Mickey Spillane's The Big Kill. The detective, the humourless Mike Hammer, a man from the Nixon-McCarthy wing of hard boiled fiction, isn't ultimately involved in an investigation at all. Instead it's a cover up.

He's covering up his own guilt. His own culpability. His own participation in the system of money-making and oppression, capital and it's associated violence. The narrative inside the narrative is that Hammer is confronted with innocence -- a bundled-up baby boy, a father's willingness to sacrifice himself -- and he feels this guilt, this responsibility, and it haunts him. But he shoulders past it. He finds someone else to take the fall for him.

There are several moments when he comes close to discovering his own culpability in this system, but he obliterates the thought of the possibility of his guilt, avoids the moments where there might have been revelation of his responsibility.

There's a moment, for example, when Hammer sees his face in a mirror. He has just ranted about revenge for the death of the working stiff, William Decker, and Hammer has ranted about how he's "still a citizen and responsible in some small way for what happens in this city," but then he's placed all that responsibility on someone else, someone as-yet unidentified, "the guy who made somebody decent revert back to a filthy crime," he says. "I want him right between my hands so I can squeeze the juice out of him."

Almost as soon as he says that, though, there's a flicker: "I just sat there with the beer in my hand and stared at myself."

It's almost a recognition. He could be the guy he's hunting. He has been a citizen and a participant in the system that does this; he is involved in this.

"I started thinking of something that was like a shadow hovering in the background," he says. "I thought about it a long time and it was still a shadow when I finished and it had a shape that was so curious ...."

There's something he recognizes, but can't quite ever see. Even when a whole subplot revolves around someone in the police department feeding information to organized crime, and there are all these injunctions to "investigate yourself," Hammer can't see it. His own space in the system that created this crime he's supposedly investigation has been erased. But he comes, again and again, to this spot, and finds it erased, and he's troubled.

"I was cursing myself," he says, "and the whole damn mess long before I was finished because it was ending in a blank."

It's not just that he doesn't see it, though, that he investigates and finds the site of his own culpability blank. He has worked to make that erasure. Hammer goes to some lengths to disavow, for instance, any financial interest in the case, even though he is pretty clearly financially involved with the crime and the criminal reality of the city. Asked, apparently innocently, who's paying him as a private detective to investigate this case, Hammer says he doesn't stand to gain anything here. "I'm just sore, that's all," he says. "I'm on my own time and my own capital."

This is a feint, though. Hammer can't quite disentangle himself so easily from the economics of death he despises. The villains, in this book, the gangsters in Spillane's smoke-rain-and-dames New York, are bookies. The economic engine of the city is one where big shots lure in working stiffs with promises of pay offs. Everyone in the novel (with the possible exception of one old lady) is a part of this system: the gangsters profit off the in-over-their-heads gambling of working class men, but the cops make their living off the gangsters who make their living off the working people, and so does the DA, and so does Mike Hammer. Maybe he's not getting paid in this case, but this is how he gets paid. The bar tenders are complicit in this, and the priest is too, and the boarding house manager is as much a part of this as anyone else. All of them are making money off the system that left Decker dead. All of them are part of the reason the man, who didn't have health care and couldn't afford to pay for his dying wife's cancer treatment, went down to the race tracks with a tip about a sure thing.

So when Hammer growls, near novel's end, "I cursed the widow-makers and the orphan-makers and every goddamn one of the scum that found it so necessary to kill because their god was a paper one printed in green," his crypto-anit-capitalist critique includes himself. But he can't see it, and his investigation, a frantic pursuit of someone, some one person, to take the punishment, continues at an increasingly frantic pace.

Hammer is a conservative, of course, but even as it never occurs to him that systems and social structures can bear responsibility as much as individual actors, the suspicion that there's a system of something at work occasionally emerges to bother his consciousness. He imagines, for example, that the case he's investigating is just one in a city where this is happening every day, that the death he saw is just one, an iteration of what's happening every day in the city. He can't conceive of the idea, though, that in this repetition, there's a system at work of which involves him. He can't conceive, though, the evil isn't only a question of agency. It's not always or only about will.

The closest he can get to thinking a social system could be eveil is when he does condemn the people who are guilty of tacit or passive support for the system -- "They ought to take a look," he says, in a rant about the evils of illegal gambling, "at a corpse with some holes punched in it" -- but he doesn't see how he is doing this too. Or course he has seen such a corpse, and it has caused these spasms of guilt in Hammer, but it's sent him on a frenzied quest to find someone else who's guilty. Someone he can punish.

There is one moment where Hammer comes to face his own culpability, where he's almost forced to admit he's at the center of this investigation he's doing. But then, like a Freudian subject faced with the knowledge he wants to have sex with his mother, he turns away from his own guilt, and concocts a story about other evil people. The guilt is displaced. It's an almost classic fantasy about the evil forces "out there." It happens, of course, in a dream: Hammer imagines all the characters in the story, all the characters involved in the crime, are dressed up in Roman togas and doing an elaborate dance:

"When the players moved it was with deliberate slowness so you could watch every
move. I stood there in the center of the compound and realized that it was all
being done for my benefit without understanding why .... I tried to concentrate
on the players until I realized I wasn't the only audience they had. Someone
else was there in the compound with me. She was a woman. She had no face."

There's an almost deliberate turning away, here. Unable to cope with the realization that he is at the center, that he's the one who benefits from this, that the guilt is his, Hammer imagines a woman who can take the guilt. A woman who can be pursued and punished.

Most of these revelations, these moments of disturbed conscious, are never returned to, in the novel. The readers are left to assume the shadow, the faceless woman, the guilty party, is in face the woman who's punished for the crime in the end. There is, though, in the end, a few sly admissions that maybe this ought not be accepted as the conclusion. "There was a lot of detail stuff there," Hammer says, "that I didn't pay any attention to."

Hammer hurdles past the finer details, though. Straight to the big kill. The faceless woman's got to get it in the end. Even that, however, is haunted by this ghost of economic guilt: the title of the book, in what is the novel's one real bit of word play, has three meanings. It refers to Hammer's quest to kill the person who killed the working man/father, and William Decker's death at the opening, and gambling, that moment in which one over-bets, imagining one's self to be a special case, exempt from the logic of the system. It's that moment when the chips are down, the cards are down, the money's down, and there's that delusion that one can play the game to get out of the game. There is a recognition, in the play on the phrase, that there's a system at work here, and the game can't be won, but when you think you're somehow above it, that's when the harsh rules of the game really kick in.

Hammer knows this, that he's a part of it too, even as he covers it up:

"Something in my chest hammered out that this, too, was the end of a cycle. It
had started with rain and was going to end in the rain. It was a deadly
cycle that could start from nothing, and nothing could stop it until it
completed its full revolution.

"The Big Kill. That's what Decker had wanted to make.

"He made it. Then he became a part of it himself."