My history with this book and film dates back to my childhood when I picked up my father’s copy of The Girl Hunters and began reading it. This was the first Spillane novel that I read. Spillane was the only novelist that my father read regularly. His active monthly reading was primarily Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and other handyman magazines. He built many a contraption from the blueprints in these magazines, and like many of the neighborhood men in the 1960s, his garage had the latest tools. Spillane was a wonder for those post-war readers who devoured I, The Jury when it was published in 1947. Spillane wrote what men wanted to read, and his protagonist, Mike Hammer, said it the way it was. As a kid in love with Sherlock Holmes, Mike Hammer was frightening to me, but he intrigued me. On page one of The Girl Hunters Mike Hammer is drunk and in the gutter. What kind of hero is this? My father said, “He’s a tough guy and he likes the dames.” They don’t call women dames any longer because the feminist-me-too crowd think it’s chauvinistic. It’s not. Dames is a derivative of damsels and was the commonly accepted jargon of the era. You can’t change history to make it prettier or politically correct simply because times have changed and you don’t like the way things once were. Anyway, somewhere I ended up seeing the film version by the Mid-60s with my father at some cheap theater. The film was released in the summer of 1963. The Girl Hunters was the 7th Mike Hammer novel and released a year earlier. As part of a series, it was an odd choice because the plot picks up when Hammer is on the skids and believes that his beloved secretary, Velda, is dead. He learns that Velda is very much alive, but she never appears in the story or film. My predominant memory of the film was of Shirley Eaton looking naked in a next-to-nothing bikini. I watched the DVD recently and she still looks great, and that bikini that’s not a bikini showcased her assets – wink!
The Girl Hunters marked Spillane’s return to Mike Hammer stories after several years of working on other projects. Some fans consider the second wave of Hammer stories slightly inferior to the hard boiled first six because they believe Spillane’s religious convictions induced him to tone it down a bit. I agree that might be factor here and there in his later books, but The Girl Hunters offers some great bruised-knuckle writing. Spillane had a knack for a phrase, and he could always toss off great lines like “I opened the window and got supper smells in ten languages from the restaurant below...” (Chapter 4) Check out Spillane’s simple but effective description of Laura Knapp in chapter 5, played by Shirley Eaton in the film: “Her hands were cradled behind her head, her eyes were closed and she was stretched out to the sun in taut repose. The top of the two-piece bathing suit was filled to overflowing with a matured ripeness that was breathtaking; the bottom half turned down well below her dimpled navel in a bikini effect, exposing the startling whiteness of untanned flesh against that which had been sun kissed. Her breathing shallowed her stomach, then swelled it gently, and she turned slightly, stretching, pointing her toes so that a sinuous ripple of muscles played along her thighs.”
The Girl Hunters isn’t the best Hammer novel, but I consider it a crucial novel in the series. Ten years had passed since the last novel, Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), and all of the Spillane paperbacks had remained in print. There are several scenes that resonate, including Hammer’s return to his office, and walking around New York in the rain. Spillane is often philosophical in his stories, yearning for a past that has only just slipped by, nostalgic for something good again. He has Hammer stop in a place off forty-fourth called The Blue Ribbon and have a “stein of Prior’s Dark beer” and say hello to old friends. He’s nostalgic, but not a softie. Hammer will bust your chops open with a knuckle sandwich the minute you get out of line. I think The Girl Hunters is an example of a writer being honest with every line. Spillane doesn’t overcook anything. He tells you the story, and it just happens to be a good one.
I love the film, too, and its stark black and white photography is complemented by the jazzy musical score by Philip Green. Spillane is great as Hammer, and the film is tough and unrelenting. The conclusion, which matches the book in every detail, is stunning and pure Spillane all the way. I recently picked up one of those mass produced thriller paperbacks you see everywhere from St. Martins, a real popular author who shall remain nameless here, and I couldn’t get past the second chapter. Trying to read a contemporary thriller always makes me miss Mickey Spillane. I was fortunate to meet both Mickey Spillane and Shirley Eaton at conventions, and those are memories I’m glad to have. Max Allan Collins is continuing the Mike Hammer novels, and doing a fine job of it.
Once, in the seventh grade, I took a battered copy of The Girl Hunters with me to school to read during the “study hour.” My parents had books of all types lying around the house and I was encouraged to read any and all of it if I wished. My parents maintained that reading was good for the mind. A teacher named Schmidt saw me with the book and stormed down the aisle and snatched it from my hands. He sneered at me. Then, with the entire class watching, he made a long speech as to what scum Mickey Spillane was, and what a lousy writer he was and nobody should read his books. My mother later called the teacher and reamed him a nice, gaping new a-hole, with my mother stating, “Don’t you ever dare talk to my child that way again or tell him what to read.” The book was returned to me and that teacher never bothered me again. My mother had brass. All of these decades later I can make myself smile by imagining that teacher in a coffin and closing the lid. Then he wakes up and begins screaming. I have placed a copy of The Girl Hunters in there with him, and a flashlight. Adios, Mr. Schmidt.