I had been meaning to read this shit for, like, seven years. From a page in, I could tell that every parody of hardboiled detective stories (seriously, EVERY one) from the 1950's onward was, in large part, parodying Spillane: even if they didn't realize it. I had always hesitated jumping into Mike Hammer myself because I had often heard the books described as a bigoted, ultra-right-wing vigilante fantasy. You can make an argument for that interpretation, but you can also make arguments against it. Besides, whatever these books may be, they are certainly some of the most important, formative, entertaining, and riveting old school tough guy crime stories ever written, and that's a genre that I will always love unabashedly.
Spillane has to find his feet a bit here, as the first book, I, the Jury is a little more run-of-the-mill than the others (also, very racist at times, but I got through it). Since Spillane's mysteries themselves aren't that amazing (I figured out every one of them awhile before the reveals, and I never TRY to figure out mysteries), these stories work better when they aren't structured or treated like normal mystery fiction. I, the Jury is still pretty great, but the series definitely had somewhere else to go, and does it ever.
The second book, My Gun is Quick (gotta love those first person titles) was probably my favorite in the collection. In it we have the beginnings of Mike Hammer realizing what a terribly destructive person he is, although it's in the last book that his violence really becomes three-dimensional. What the second book really excels at is an amazing leap forward in ways of looking at gender, considering it's still a crime novel written in 1950. Mike Hammer books seem to pretty much always be homophobic, unfortunately, but the sexism is often pretty restrained, and Spillane, and indeed Hammer (who I don't think is an author avatar), are very upfront about how fucked up and unfair sexual double standards are... and without giving much away, that, and the fact that most cops couldn't care less about the murder of a prostitute, are central to the story of My Gun is Quick.
The last one, Vengeance is Mine, also has some very interesting things bouncing around in it, some that I can't mention for fear of spoilers. But this book gives us a wonderful sense of continuity, as much of it is wrapped up in Hammer's own psyche and the way his violent life has affected him and his own self-worth. The ending of the first book, especially, seems to be one of the formative moments of his life, and so that in part accounts for the Hammer of that first book being a less captivating character.
In the end, I leave this review at four stars not for the racism and homophobia that crop up intermittently (those are, unfortunately, par for the course in books from this period), but because a little more moral nuance in Hammer's violent nature, and a little less of every woman (and gay man) ever being hopelessly attracted to Mike Hammer would have been nice--I could only push suspension of disbelief so far. Nonetheless, don't get it twisted, these are classics of the genre that should be read and enjoyed. They fly by and are immensely fun and riveting: they may be a guilty pleasure, at times, or they may not be perfect to you, but they're more complex than they're given credit for, and even if they weren't they'd be damn good crime yarns. For all of his problems, Mike Hammer is, in the end, an admittedly evil necessity who sticks up for the disenfranchised who aren't supposed to exist in the happy, sunshiney world of the 1950s. (Just... you know, only some of the disenfranchised.)