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University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

Kiss Me, Deadly

cover image By: Spillane, Mickey (male)
Publisher: New American Library (Signet Books 1000)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 374: PS3537 .P652 K57 1953
Contributor: K. Dykstra


Era: 1950s Author as on Cover: Mickey Spillane Geographic Locale: New York City (opens on a remote highway in New York State; then moves to various locations in and around New York City) Date of Publication: 1953  |  Original Date: 1952 Setting: urban; Hammer spends a lot of time seeking out gangsters from different levels of the Mafia, which sometimes involves visiting expensive private locations and sometimes involves searching through lower-class bars, depending on the status of the individual criminals Motives: torture, revenge, theft, murder

Plot Summary

Private investigator Mike Hammer narrowly avoids running over a mysterious woman on the road at night. When she gets into his car, she draws him into a complicated mystery. Hammer decides that he can't walk away from the mystery after they both become victims to the Mafia; the woman is tortured and killed in front of him, and Hammer himself is pushed over a cliff in his car, surviving only when he is thrown clear. Hammer's disgust for the Mafia fuels him for the rest of the novel.

Major Characters

Mike Hammer adult male, strong, but repeatedly called "ugly," sexually attractive to many women nonetheless, private investigator

Pat Chambers adult male, police captain

Billy Mist adult male, middle-aged, greasy face, gangster

Dr. Soberin adult male, middle-aged, doctor working with the Mafia; runs sanitarium where Berga Tom was sent

Lily Carver (adopted name), adult female, snow-white hair, attractive until she exposes a torso scarred by flames, criminal passing as Lily Carver, Berga Tom's friend and roommate

Berga Tom adult female, "wide-set eyes, large mouth, tawny hair that spilled onto her shoulders like melted butter....a Viking," former companion to mafiosos

Velda adult female, "tall, with hair like midnight. Beautiful," with "feline motion," assistant to Mike Hammer (in addition, there are many lower-level gangsters in the employ of the Mafia)


fists, guns

Level of Violence

incidents of violence are many and varied. Mike Hammer enjoys his battles with mafiosos, and his narration gives the reader close-ups of his work -- a fist twisting a jaw until it snaps, for example. He does not enjoy the torture of the naked Berga Tom in the same way, but he describes it: "She was sprawled in the chair, her mouth making uncontrollable mewing sounds. The hand with the pliers did something horrible to her and the mouth opened without screaming." (Chapter 1).


sexuality and violence are the major themes of the novel, as the title suggests. Every woman in the novel is described by Mike Hammer as being sexually desirable in the extreme (see Chapter 8 for two good examples, the nurse and Michael Friday). This desirability sets up the novel's climax. One of the desirable women, the woman posing as Lily Carver, turns out to be working against Mike Hammer. We immediately see her sexual appeal remade into a vision of horror: "Her hands slipped through the belt of the robe, opened it. Her hands parted it slowly....until I could see what she was really like. I wanted to vomit worse than before. I wanted to let my guts come up and felt my belly retching. She was a horrible caricature of a human! There was no skin, just a disgusting mass of twisted, puckered flesh from her knees to her neck, making a picture of gruesome freakishness that made you want to shut your eyes against it." The woman has not only been passing as Lily Carver, but more generally, as a sexually desirable woman, and the revelation of her true "identities" is meant to be shocking. The desires portrayed in the novel are heterosexual; some of the heterosexual relations are between mafiosos and women like Berga Tom. Others involve Mike Hammer. Finally, Mike's assistant, Velda, is also his girlfriend; when she goes undercover to catch Billy Mist and the other Mafia higher-ups, Mike watches furiously as Velda seduces the criminals. Female sexuality is described repeatedly by Mike Hammer. The paragraphs are not long, but they add up over the course of the novel.

Gender Roles

women in this novel tend to be ex-prostitutes and gun molls -- traditional figures of one sort. Velda is different, being Mike's assistant and girlfriend. Her duties go beyond secretarial work to dangerous undercover work, and she is kidnapped as a result. However, this potentially non-traditional role is circumscribed by a variety of factors. Velda is always presented in sexual terms, and as the plot approaches its climax, Mike has to rescue her from her captivity. We are instructed not to take Velda's judgment too seriously by Mike's remarks in Chapter 2: "She was so completely serious it was almost funny. I felt like kissing the tip of her nose and sending her out to play, but her eyes were pleading with me." When Pat Chambers hears that bodies of dead mafiosos have been located, he checks in with Mike, who refuses to deal directly with the fact that he is killing a lot of people. Other than this deliberate indirectness on Mike's part, there is no questioning of his tough-guy strategies. The mood of righteous vengeance seems to be used to justify his actions. Thus, it would be possible to read Mike Hammer as an idealized tough guy. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels have frequently been noted for their misogyny, and this novel is full of sexist attitudes of different kinds.


race does not seem to be an issue; however, there does seem to be an assumption that all of the characters are Caucasians, which could be an issue in itself. Although the Mafia is associated with Italians and the symbol of the black hand, there are plenty of mafiosos here who are not Italian at all. Furthermore, the woman posing as Lily Carver, who is thoroughly condemned by the end of the novel, has a cloud of "snowy" hair. This whiteness is potentially lovely at first; however, by the end of the novel, this whiteness could be re-read as the horrific clue to her body's horror, the damage done by burning.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

"Lily" is associated with the smell of alcohol, more than any other character here. However, the scent may actually be a clue to her medical condition, to grafted skin that must be cleaned regularly, rather than the result of drinking. Social drinking is present.

Law Enforcement

the F.B.I. and local police are involved. None of the main figures break the law; they do seem interested in solving the crime. Except for Pat, the local police officer who checks in with Mike Hammer from time to time, the law enforcement characters are part of the background rather than the central action. We don't see them, their motives, or their philosophies in any detail. In an interesting twist, though, Mike Hammer initially mis-reads several Mafia operatives as F.B.I. operatives; they seem to give off similar signals. The F.B.I. is quick to arrange the suspension of Mike Hammer's license, correctly suspecting that he would want to get involved professionally after being a "patsy" for the Mafia-arranged murder of Berga Tom. Pat is inclined to give more credit to Mike as an investigator, and he cooperates with Mike within certain limits.

Subject Headings

New York (N.Y.)/ Hammer, Mike/ Detectives, Private/ Mafia/ Murder

Psychological Elements

Mike Hammer's general mental state is foreshadowed in Chapter 1: "Trouble. Like the smoke over a cake of dry ice. You can't smell it but you can see it and watch it boil and seep around things and know that soon something's going to crack and shatter under the force of the horrible contraction." Smoky warnings continue to appear in the next few chapters. In Chapter 5, the novel's mood is firmly established with a long passage about the "voice of the monster" outside Mike Hammer's windows, in the city. Mike decides that the voice is "People, that's all. Just soft, pulpy people, most of them nice. And some of them filthy and twisted who gorged themselves on flesh and puffed up with the power they had so that when they got stuck they popped like ripe melons and splashed their guts all over the ground." The passage grows and builds; its imagery recurs throughout the novel. We wonder if this is what Mike meant when he told Pat that watching Berga Tom's torture and death "changes something in the way you were thinking" (Chapter 3). His viewpoint supports his overall mission, which is almost more about vengeance than knowledge. The psychological paradigm used is melodramatic and affect-oriented.

Film Adaptations

Kiss Me, Deadly, 1955, United Artists