One Lonely Night – Book Review
One Lonely Night, written by Mickey Spillane and published in 1951 features his most famous character, Mike Hammer, investigating Soviet espionage. Although written in the style of a hard-boiled private eye novel, the plot features stolen defence plans and Soviet spies controlling American communists.
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One Lonely Night: Logline
A private eye intervenes to save a young woman from being killed by a hitman, but she commits suicide. The private eye investigates the hitman’s communist and Soviet connections, driven by a need to satiate his own lust for violence and murder.
One Lonely Night: Plot Summary
Note: In the novel, Soviet intelligence is referred to as the MVD, I have updated this to its later, better known, name: KGB.
Mike Hammer is a private eye in 1950’s New York. He has just been released from court, having been found not guilty of murder. Although he wasn’t convicted, the judge had berated him as having discovered a love for killing during the Second World War. He also believed Hammer was using his private investigator’s licence as an excuse to carry out legally-sanctioned murder.
The judges’s incisive accusation troubles Hammer. He walks through the streets of Manhattan ending up on a bridge, seemingly contemplating suicide. A woman running across the bridge in terror interrupts him. Behind her is a short, fat man with a gun, who appears to be about to kill her. Hammer draws his own gun and shoots the would-be killer down. The woman sees the lust on Hammer’s face and assumes he is also one of her pursuers. She jumps off the bridge to her death. Hammer disfigures the man’s corpse to make it unrecognisable and throws it into the river.
Reds under the Beds
The next day, Hammer visits his friend in the police department, Pat Chambers. Chambers identifies some cards that Hammer found on the bodies as indicating membership of the Communist Party USA.
Hammer walks past a communist demonstration in Union Square, and stops to listen to the speaker. The speaker’s rhetoric angers him and he is about to start a fight when he spots two men with guns in the crowd. He realises they are bodyguards for the speaker.
Seeing how organised the communists are, he decides to follow them, and ends up at a party meeting, where he is mistaken for a KGB spy sent by Moscow. He plays along and recognises one of the meeting attendees, Ethel Brighton, the daughter of a rich socialite family. Hammer leaves the meeting with her and drives her home. She seems terrified of him, which he puts down to her thinking he is a KGB agent.
Chambers tells Hammer that Lee Deamer, a political candidate running on an anti-corruption ticket has an insane twin brother, Oscar. Chambers is a big supporter of Deamer and asks Hammer to take care of the problem unofficially.
Red in Tooth and Claw
Hammer, Chambers and Velda, Hammer’s secretary, go to Oscar’s address. They chase Oscar to the train station, where he throws himself in front of a train, which leaves his body unrecognisable.
Hammer meets with Ethel again. She is still scared of him, but they drive to a cottage her family owns and have sex. In the morning, Hammer leaves before Ethel wakes, hitchhikes back to New York and meets Deamer again. Deamer is shocked by his brother’s death but tells Hammer that Oscar was trying to blackmail him with documents he had. Deamer hires Hammer to recover the documents, which are now missing, as Oscar is dead.
Later the news announces that plans for a secret weapon have been stolen by the communists. Hammer thinks they must be the same papers that Oscar had, as he discovers that the dead woman was Paula Riis, who was both Oscar’s nurse and a communist.
Hammer attends the court where Communist Party leaders are on trial for plotting the violent overthrow of the USA. Deamer is tearing into the Communists, which Hammer approves of. He meets Ethel, who he suspects of betraying him, as he has been attacked several times during his investigation, and takes her back to the cottage…
At the cottage, Hammer accuses Ethel of betrayal. Unconvinced by her explanation, he attacks her. As he’s beating her, a KGB agent shoots her from outside the cottage and escapes. Going through Ethel’s belongings, Hammer finds an FBI card; Ethel had in fact gone to the law, renouncing her communism. He calls a doctor to save her.
Hammer works out that Paula Riis must have had the stolen papers. He goes to her apartment. The KGB have ransacked it and stolen her letterbox, but the landlady has Paula’s mail. The stolen papers are among the letters.
The KGB kidnap Velda and demand Hammer gives them the papers in return for her life. He trails the messenger back to their hideout. On the way, he mentally accepts the judge’s verdict that he is compelled by his insanity to kill, but rationalises to himself that killing communists in defence of the USA is a good thing even so. He assaults the KGB hideout, kills them all and rescues Velda.
Finally, Hammer meets with Deamer. He says that Lee Deamer is dead and the man in front of him is Oscar Deamer and a communist. Hammer kills Deamer and leaves evidence suggesting the communists are responsible for the murder, so that the anti-communist witch-hunt will continue.
One Lonely Night: Analysis
Mickey Spillane was hugely commercially successful, selling over one hundred million copies of his novels over his career. However, his works never received the slightest critical acclaim, being universally regarded as the worst sort of badly written trash. To me this is interesting – why the disconnect between popular appeal and critical disdain?
I came to One Lonely Night, which even the critics regard as one of Spillane’s better novels, expecting it to be abysmal. I was surprised to discover that it was not in fact poorly written, although there are occasional stylistic failures.
One Lonely Night is written in the ‘hard-boiled’ style popularised by Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Though Spillane is clearly not as good a sentence writer, One Lonely Night is not written in incompetent prose. It has a simplicity and punchiness, brought about by very short sentences; I spotted few over twenty words in length. The story is also written entirely in first person, keeping the reader right alongside Hammer, which is not an easy way of telling a story.
Perhaps Spillane’s style seems better with the passage of time, being more mainstream now, and with the merits of authors like Chandler, James Ellroy and Jim Thompson now recognised. Ellroy in particular has been critically acclaimed for his use of clipped sentences.
Writing from the Point of View of a Murderer
But it’s the comparison with Jim Thompson and particularly between One Lonely Night and The Killer Inside Me that I want to explore.
In The Killer Inside Me , Thompson writes a story from the point of view of a police officer who is also a psychopathic killer. My view is that in One Lonely Night Spillane engages in a similar exercise. Hammer, like Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, should be considered as an anti-hero.
My contention is that the clipped style is that of the protagonist, Mike Hammer, and the style is in fact part of the characterisation. Hammer is an unthinking thug, even a psychopath. He lacks wit, charm or any real humanity, moving through the novel and towards its conclusion, by intimidating, beating and killing anyone who stands in his way.
The only problem with this analysis of One Lonely Night comes in Hammer’s relationship with women. Somehow, despite his total lack of charm, Hammer appears irresistible to them: waitresses wink at him; his secretary, Velda, is patiently in love with him; two women who are members of the American Communist Party throw themselves at him and, as soon as he has screwed them, renounce communism. This is the logic of a soft-core porn movie.
To me the explanation is that Hammer is not a reliable narrator. Even in the narrative as presented, Ethel is clearly terrified of him, and the other woman desperate. The second encounter might not even happen at all, the woman appears in the middle of the night and disappears again by morning, not to be seen again. Hammer also exhibits a Madonna/whore complex, reserving his few higher feelings for Velda, who he is unwilling, or unable, to have sex with.
The supposed hero of One Lonely Night, Mike Hammer, is at least as guilty of murder as the people he pursues. He has ‘rubbed out’ far more people than the communists have by the conclusion. He admits to himself at the end of the story that he is insane, saying his ‘brain is rotten’ and the ‘rot had got worse’ since the war. The violence and sex are particularly sickening because Hammer is enjoying himself as he kills the men and beats the women he more than likely forces himself on.
Hammer’s various attempts to justify his actions are the usual rambling, contradictory rationalisations of a criminal: he tries to wrap himself in the flag, to claim he’s ‘not as bad as they are’, that he’s ‘defending’ others, and that his victims ‘deserve it’.
It all adds up to One Lonely Night being the self-deluded fantasy of a high-functioning, moderately intelligent psychopath, with limited self-knowledge, who has worked himself into a position where he can do what he enjoys: get away with killing and hurting people.
This is deep black noir.
One Lonely Night was written at the height of US anti-communist hysteria. Hammer’s extreme hatred of communism, which he doesn’t express any rationale for, stating only that it’s ‘un-American’ and ‘shouldn’t be allowed’, would not have seemed as extreme then as it does now.
The trial Hammer attends is the real life Foley Square trial, where members of the Communist Party USA were convicted of infringing the Smith Act, which made advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government illegal. The trial was described at the time as “hostile”, ‘bitter’ and “like a circus” or show trial. A series of United States Supreme Court decisions in 1957 reversed a number of convictions under the Act as unconstitutional, but it remains on the statute books.
Deamer, is possibly a heavily fictionalised version of Henry A. Wallace, a progressive presidential candidate, previously vice-president under Franklin Roosevelt. Wallace’s candidacy for the presidency in 1948 was severely undermined by leaked letters showing he had eccentric religious beliefs and charges that he was a communist and/or a Soviet agent.
One Lonely Night: Alternative Book Cover
Almost all the commercial covers for One Lonely Night have focussed on the provocative scene of Velda, tied up and naked at the denouement of the story. Instead I decided to emphasise the suicide that provides the inciting incident. The falling woman and the bloodstains emphasise the human cost of the narrative.
One Lonely Night: My Rating
More interesting than you’d think, once you realise that the story is an exploration of the mind of a psychopath and that Hammer is no kind of hero.
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