Monday, October 25, 2010

First Chapters - Kiss Me Deadly

I know people collect first lines but how about first chapters? I thought about this as I dug through a box of old paperbacks the other day. There among the various novels was Kiss Me, Deadly by Mickey Spillane. A battered first edition of the Signet paperback of 1953. Al Collins was kind enough to give me a hardcover copy of it twenty-some years ago. It's on my keeper shelf.

For me this is one of the most amazing first chapters I've ever read. Night, fog, a beautiful woman hitch hiking and nearly getting Hammer and herself killed by standing in the middle of a narrow mountain pass where he's forced to slam on the brakes. We soon learn that she's naked under a trench coat. We also learn from her behavior that somewhere back there a car is following her. There is a road block at which we hear that the woman has escaped from an asylum. In order to win Hammer's favor, the woman places his hand between her legs as Hammer talks to the cop. A few miles later the car descends on them. Hammer and the woman are dragged unconscious to a location where the woman, because she won't reveal certain information, is brutally murdered.

I think I read this in 1954 and it was the first time I became (dimly) aware of narrative drive. I wasn't old enough to understand all the innuendos but my God the action alone was enough. Spillane was always a master of mood (try the opening chapter of One Lonely Night) and he was never better than in Kiss Me, Deadly. (The movie is one of the great true noirs; Ralph Meeker is sneeringly masterful.)

7 comments:

Bill Crider said...

This is the one that made me a Spillane fan. I've told the story before about the kid who parked in front of my house and honked his car horn until I came out. I got in the car, and he tossed me the book and said, "Read this!" That did it for me.

Brian Drake said...

Must agree on this one, but I would also add that the first chapter of "The Killing Man" should be memorized by every writer doing any kind of crime or adventure fiction. There isn't much action, but the tension Spillane generated was incredible.

I wish the film version of "Kiss Me, Deadly" had stayed true to the book, or at lest true to the character (no way would I want that great explosive ending changed!). Meeker was indeed a great Hammer who would have been great had they done films of all the early books with him and with the production values "Kiss" had.

Matt said...

I actually prefer the movie. There's no black and white. No detective to root for against thugs and Communists. Everyone is angry and selfish. And weak. The film makers dropped Spillaine's often overly simplistic worldview to create one of the first downbeat detective classics.

In the film version, there are only suckers and losers. Plus the dead. And enough of an unsympathetic portrayal of Mike Hammer to predate 70s cinema by almost 20 years.

But all that said, the book is certainly solid. And yeah, that first chapter really swings...

Anonymous said...

Loved the movie and the book. Thanks for posting.

Ed Lynskey

Max Allan Collins said...

Nobody did better openings and closings than Mickey. That may be why he left behind so many books for me to finish! He got the most satisfaction out of fashioning compelling openings and figuring out wild endings.

It would be hard to top KISS ME, DEADLY as a first chapter, but ONE LONELY NIGHT probably does it. As for the film, Aldrich and Bezzerides set out to take Mickey down a peg and, in a beautiful irony, elevated him. I have no trouble with this brilliant movie showing Hammer in a bad light -- an argument can be made that it's a third-person view of the character as opposed to Mickey's famous first-person characterization. Meeker's Hammer is not without merit -- he hangs out with (and champions) minorities, he is a dogged and effective detective, and (in true Spillane fashion) he deals ruthlessly with bad guys. You would have to reach for THE MALTESE FALCON or maybe...maybe...THE BIG SLEEP to find a film adapatation of a hardboiled PI novel that compares to KISS ME DEADLY.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have never thought about a first chapter before. I'm going to find a good one.

Mike Dennis said...

Count me in, Ed. KISS ME DEADLY is a classic in every respect, both novel and movie, and Ralph Meeker was never better.