I, The Jury (1947) is Mickey Spillane's (b. Brooklyn, 1918) first novel featuring private investigator Mike Hammer.
The novel is set in and around New York City in the summer of 1944. Although she runs a successful private psychiatric clinic on New York's Park Avenue, Charlotte Manning -- young, beautiful, blonde, well-to-do, and sexually starved (maybe) -- cannot get enough. In order to increase her profit, she gets involved with a group of criminals -- a "syndicate" - specialising in both prostitution and drug-trafficking. The brains of the "outfit" is Hal Kines, who has had plastic surgery so that he looks much younger than he really is: This is how he gets hold of the young women whom he then turns into prostitutes. Manning herself has a rich and "ritzy" clientele -- people who would not want their addiction to become public knowledge. But instead of weaning them off drugs in her private and exclusive clinic, Manning makes them even more dependent on both the drug -- heroin in most cases -- and on herself by procuring the stuff herself. On the surface, Charlotte Manning keeps up appearances and leads a respectable life as a renowned psychiatrist.
When Jack Williams, a former New York cop who has lost an arm in World War II saving his friend Mike Hammer's life, falls in love with Myrna Devlin, a young heroin addict whom he prevents from committing suicide by jumping off a bridge, he asks Manning to admit her to her clinic for therapy. After Myrna has become clean, she and Williams become engaged, and the couple keep up a casual friendship with Charlotte Manning. This is how Williams's growing suspicions about Manning's business lead him to privately and secretly investigate even further into the matter. When he realizes that Hal Kines, one of Manning's college students who has spent some time at her clinic and who has become one of her casual acquaintances, is in fact a criminal, he wants to talk to her about it and tells her so. When, at a party given by Williams in his apartment, Charlotte Manning sees some old college yearbooks whose contents (and photos), if made public, would expose Kines's double life, she has to act fast. After the party, she goes home but on the same night, undetected by Kathy, her African American maid, goes back to Williams's apartment (Myrna, his fiancée, does not live there) and shoots him in the stomach using a silencer. She does so in a particularly sadistic way, watching him die slowly. Then she takes the college yearbooks and leaves.
None of the guests at Williams's party has a watertight alibi, but to both Pat Chambers, the cop investigating the murder, and Mike Hammer, a friend of his and private investigator, none of them has a motive either. Throughout the book, as more and more immediate suspects are eliminated (shot) ("If this kept up there wouldn't be anyone left at all."), Hammer briefly ponders the question if the killer could be an "outsider" -- someone wholly unrelated to the group of people who have been at Williams's party, for example someone Williams was after in his capacity as investigator for an insurance company. Chambers also thinks along similar lines: Williams's (secret) connection with Myrna's former drug dealers might have cost him his life. But they soon abandon that theory.
When Mike Hammer sees Williams's body ("For the first time in my life I felt like crying"), he makes a solemn vow: He promises that he will find the murderer and execute him himself, avoiding the U.S. judicial system altogether. He says that if he left it to the courts to punish the perpetrator, some clever lawyer would surely achieve an acquittal and the murderer would get away with his crime. This is why he himself will be the jury - and the judge, for that matter. Throughout their basically separate investigations, Hammer and Chambers work closely together, exchanging information and evidence. But each of them hopes he will be the one to find the killer in the end.
The immediate suspects Hammer finds himself confronted with are:
- Esther and Mary Bellemy, identical twins in their late twenties living in a New York apartment hotel, rather attractive women of independent means, with a large estate somewhere in the country. Both are unmarried and obviously looking for husbands. Later, Hammer finds out -- through first-hand experience -- that Mary Bellemy is a nymphomaniac. Esther Bellemy, whom he never gets to know intimately, is no virgin either, but much more reserved than her sister Mary, with whom Hammer actually has sex on two separate occasions.
- George Kalecki, whom Hammer knows to have been a crook -- a bootlegger, to be precise -- but who has obviously achieved a clean record and who now appears to be Hal Kines's paternal friend, paying for the latter's tuition and giving him food and lodging. (In fact it is the other way round: Hal Kines, the "big shot" and the brains of the syndicate, has a hold on Kalecki: Hidden away in the vaults of some bank he has documents proving that Kalecki is a killer on the loose.)
- Hal Kines, who poses as a student of medicine but who is in fact the head of a criminal organisation specializing in prostitution and drug-dealing. His very sophisticated -- and complicated -- way of procuring willing women for his "outfit" can only be understood if one considers the morally repressed society of the late 1940s: Again and again, he assumes the role of John Hanson, a student in some provincial college (for example in the Midwest), pretends falling in love with a female student, makes her pregnant, forces her to have an illegal abortion, and then deserts her. By now the girl's life has been ruined, she has been ostracized by both her family and most likely all her friends and acquaintances. Then a car arrives, picks up the desperate young woman and drives her straight to one of the New York "call houses" operated by his syndicate. Once there, there is no way for her to escape.
- Charlotte Manning, with whom Hammer falls in love and who, as far as he can see, has no motive whatsoever to kill Williams. Hammer, the first person narrator of the story, describes her as "radiating sex in every manner and gesture" ("Mary [Bellemy] only had sex. Charlotte had that plus a lot more."). Charlotte confesses her love for him, and he says that he has never been in love before. Soon they talk about getting married. Hammer has always admired her "golden hair"; but not before the very end of the novel, when she strips naked in front of him and reveals her pubic hair to him does he find out that Charlotte is a "natural blonde". In the course of the action Charlotte Manning kills five people: After committing her first murder, she has to cover up her tracks and murder anyone who might be able to expose her. As Hammer admits, she has an unusual amount of luck helping her to do all that.
- Myrna Devlin, a former "dope fiend" who, as it turns out, does not play any important role in the plot at all except that of one of the victims: At the Bellemys' party (towards the end of the book), Myrna, alone in an upstairs room where most of the guests have left their coats, tries on Charlotte Manning's coat and discovers heroin in one of its pockets. This is the reason why Manning has to shoot her, too.
It takes Hammer and Chambers a relatively long time to figure out what is really going on. In the meantime, Charlotte Manning, unsuspected by everybody, continues bumping off those who have become dangerous for her. At the same time, her relationship to Hammer deepens. What really goes on inside her head is difficult for the reader to fathom, as we see everything through Hammer's eyes, and for a very long time he is completely blind to the facts ("I hope you get him,' she said sincerely."). During a walk through Central Park, while Charlotte Manning is baby-sitting for one of her female friends, she and Hammer are shot at -- and in broad daylight, too. The driver of the car and sniper is George Kalecki, but it does not become clear until much later that he was after Manning rather than Hammer. He misses though.
On a Saturday morning, Hammer picks up Myrna Devlin and gives her a lift. They drive to the Bellemy twins' estate in the country for a gigantic all-day party there. Charlotte Manning says she has some business to attend to and will be there in time for a tennis game due to take place that evening. After an unsuccessful attempt at playing tennis himself, Hammer gets rid of his sleep deficit by spending all day in his room, fast asleep, with "old junior" -- his gun -- close to him. He is woken up just in time for dinner, during which Harmon Wilder, the Bellemys' lawyer, and Charles Sherman, Wilder's assistant, are pointed out to him. This is a fine -- and the final -- distractor in the novel: Wilder and Sherman are suddenly missing from the party after Myrna Devlin has been found shot. In fact they had illicit drugs on them and did not want to be found out. During the tennis game, Mary Bellemy asks Charlotte if she can "borrow" Hammer. Then she leads him into the woods where, in complete darkness, she strips in front of him. When Hammer realizes what she has done it is too late: After all, he is just a man. They have sex right then and there. They return to the party just as a maid discovers Myrna's body in an upstairs room, in front of a large mirror. Both Pat Chambers and the local police are called in, and the alibis of each of the guests -- more than 250, including gatecrashers -- are checked. Again Charlotte can convince everyone that she could not have done anything.
Back home, Hammer retreats into his apartment to think. He does so all Sunday, unkempt and unshaven. ("Every ashtray was filled to overflowing.") Finally, he knows the identity of the killer. This is when he goes to Charlotte's place, recapitulates the whole crime and finally executes her -- before she can distract him by stripping, grab her gun and pull the trigger on him.
I, the Jury is not just a hard-boiled detective thriller; it is a whodunit, a murder mystery, as well, and Hammer possesses intellectual as well as physical power. Just like Hercule Poirot makes all suspects gather in the library to explain his solution to them (and the reader), Hammer recapitulates the whole crime in front of the killer -- in the privacy of Charlotte Manning's apartment though, and with no-one else present. This is a nice variation of this old convention, and it shows that Hammer does not solely rely on his gun and his physical invulnerability: He does use what Poirot would call his "little grey cells" and carefully puts two and two together until he has solved the mystery.
Viewed from an early 21st century point of view, next to nothing about Mike Hammer's character is politically correct: Time and again the reader is confronted with his an eye for an eye mentality. Just like Philip Marlowe (cf. the opening pages of Raymond Chandler´s The Big Sleep), he fights on the right side but "tests very high on insubordination". He has not forgiven the Japanese for attacking Pearl Harbor and maiming his friend. He smokes. In his favourite haunt, hard-drinking Hammer asks the waiter to bring him "a rye and soda every fifteen minutes". And finally, his relationship with women is highly ambiguous. He feels that "there's lots of dames I could park with if I felt like it". The games Hammer plays with Velda, his secretary, a licensed private investigator in her own right, are bound to be criticised: He never makes a pass at her, but he knows that she is in love with him and would marry him at once ("How I hated to tell Velda about Charlotte!"). How immoral (amoral?) is Hammer? On the one hand, he refuses to sleep with Charlotte. On the other, he willingly yields to a promiscuous woman like Mary Bellemy -- twice -- , even if he tells her that the first time was "a mistake". All in all, it probably is exactly his macho image that readers today find appealing.