New York Times bestseller and author of Supreme Justice, Max Allan Collins walks us through writing with a vengeance and how the theme plays out through our favorite books, movies, and characters.
Revenge is a theme common in literature, from The Iliad to Hamlet, from The Count of Monte Cristo to Moby Dick. Sometimes revenge is an end in itself, giving satisfaction or at least closure to the wronged party; other times authors have explored the price of revenge, or have suggested forgiveness as a better option. Few subjects are richer or have been more thoroughly mined.
Western novels and films are particularly rife with revenge (The Searchers, True Grit, The Outlaw Josey Wales) and modern horror films have frequently given their boogie-men the back story of a wronged outcast returned to wreak vengeance, from the Frankenstein monster to the much-wronged Carrie. Witness Friday the 13th’s Jason, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, the Ghostface killer(s) in the Scream films. Even fantasy novels and films explore revenge as a theme, from Conan the Barbarian to The Princess Bride.
Getting even feels good, or at least it seems like it ought to, so readers and movie audiences find a vengeful wronged hero (Mad Max) or heroine (Kill Bill) an easy point of identification. Conflict is the engine of any good story, and revenge reflects conflict at its most heightened – no surprise that many crime novels and thrillers are steeped in vengeance.
This can mean surviving victims taking on the task of tracking down the perpetrators, as in the notorious films I Spit on Your Grave (1978, 2010) and Ms. 45 (1981). Or it might be a parent as in Last House on the Left (1972, 2009), whose source was Ingmar Bergman’s rape-revenge 1960 film, The Virgin Spring, itself based on a 13th Century Ballad. An entire series of films starring Charles Bronson emerged from Death Wish (1964), based on Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel.
Revenge is a frequent motive of the crimes that detectives solve in mystery fiction – Murder on the Orient Express (1933), perhaps the great Agatha Christie’s best-known work, is just one (if particularly apt) example. Her similarly famous And Then There Were None (1939) is a sly variation on the theme.
More straightforward is the cop hero of William P. McGivern’s influential novel The Big Heat (1952), who avenges his wife’s death in an exploding car meant for him. Director Fritz Lang’s classic 1953 film noir version, with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, is an early example of the good guy taking on the bad guys on their own nasty terms. This approach was not unknown in westerns but new to police dramas.
It’s likely McGivern was influenced by the crime writer whose use of vengeance as a theme changed not only the mystery genre but publishing itself. Comic book writer/WW 2 war veteran Mickey Spillane published I, the Jury in 1947, introducing one of the most famous of all fictional private eyes, Mike Hammer. Hammer swears vengeance over the corpse of an army buddy who lost an arm in the Pacific saving the detective’s life. No matter who the villain turns out to be, Hammer will not just find him, but execute him – even if it’s a her.
This was something entirely new in mystery fiction, and Spillane became the most popular – and controversial – mystery writer of the mid-twentieth century. In addition to creating an eye-for-an-eye hero, the writer brought a new level of sex and violence to the genre. He was called a fascist by left-leaning critics and a libertine by right-leaning critics. In between were millions of readers who turned Spillane’s first six Hammer novels into the bestselling private eye novels of all time.
The revenge theme was a constant in Mike Hammer’s world – Vengeance Is Mine! among his titles – with the detective rarely taking a paying client. Getting even was the motivation for this detective.
I was lucky enough to know Mickey Spillane and work with him, and was asked by him shortly before his death to complete a number of unfinished Hammer novels, manuscripts covering the entire span of the writer’s career. Lady, Go Die! (2012) completes a 1947 manuscript and is a sequel to I, the Jury. The current King of the Weeds was envisioned by Spillane as the last Hammer novel. Both have vengeance themes.
Despite Spillane’s enormous success, subsequent private eye novels have seldom depicted the hero as avenger, perhaps because the likes of Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer were more humane figures than the hardboiled Hammer. Paperback reprints of Spillane’s hardcovers in the 1950s, however, led to an explosion of paperback originals that often took crime and mystery into more explicitly sexual and violent areas. As late as 1969, Don Pendleton’s Executioner series depicted a vengeance-driven protagonist that led to a sub-genre of action heroes that flourishes to this day.
In addition, Mike Hammer paved the way for James Bond – Casino Royale has its revenge aspect – and every tough action P.I., cop and government agent who followed, from Dirty Harry to Jack Bauer. The latest descendent of the Hammer-style hero is an unlikely one: the vengeance-driven young woman, as seen in the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. What Doesn’t Kill Her (2013), a novel of mine designed to bring the Nordic noir vibe into an American setting, is just one example of the impact Swedish thrillers have had worldwide.