I remember as a kid reading a review of Dr No by Halliwell where he called it a decent spy spoof. That boggled my mind, because up until that moment, I’d regarded the whole Bond enterprise pretty seriously – he was spy, who had life-and-death situations and slept with women, and was witty, but not funny. My conception of a spoof was Blazing Saddles – mostly silly. Which, when comparing Bond to something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it is.
The path that Halliwell started me down was my long-abiding interest in satire, and my main theory on satire is that it is most effective when it is also what it’s satirising. This creates the possibility of an ambiguous reading, where satire is distinguished mostly by judgement – the judgement Halliwell applied to Bond. It also creates the possibility of works moving from being serious to being satiric as the genre standards around them and the reception of the work changes.
My favourite neo-satire is The Murders of the Rue Morgue; which is a little absurd in the presentation of the details, a little over-wrought, and the solution is sufficiently improbable that I find it hard to read as a serious work.
All of which is background to reading Mickey Spillane with Dashiell Hammett as your baseline reference. Spillane’s detective, Mike Hammer, is a very Bond-esque hero. He’s famous, he’s larger than life, he is nigh-invulnerable, women want him and men want to be him. He pounds the mean streets, and he implements a vigilante justice which places him in the Western tradition as moral arbiter.
All of which mimicks and amplifies the characteristic traits of Hammett and Chandler’s detectives. The Contintental Op isn’t famous, but he’s got a network of underworld contacts. He’s not invulnerable, but he does take a pounding and keep trucking. Women do put the moves on him, but almost always as a femme fatale power-play. He does live by a strict moral code – just not one about justice per se.
The crimes in Hammett are often large-scale, often daring, often complex, but I always sense at the end of the day, that they’re not as large, daring or complex as they seem to be. Hammett has a way of breaking them down so they don’t seem like much in the end, and by-and-large, the motives are straightforward and understandable. Which is again, the basis for Spillane’s work, but dialled up to 11, so that everything is shocking, labyrinthine and hence defies belief.
To my refined sensibilities, The Body Lovers is a passable satire on the hard-boiled detective.