Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Slippin’ Heaven a Mickey

First it was Dorothy Uhnak, suddenly gone at age 76. Now it’s Mickey Spillane, who was 88 years old at the time he died, on Monday, in his hometown of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. The passing of two such heavyweights in the crime-fiction field during a single week’s span is somewhat alarming. Though, of course, many people thought Spillane was already gone, many years ago. This was in fact a tribute to his longevity and impact: How, readers figured, could someone who’d been at the crime-writing game for so long (his first private eye Mike Hammer novel, I, the Jury, was published back in 1947) still be batting out stories on his old Smith-Corona typewriter?

But others saw “The Mick,” as he was known, as a permanent fixture in the pantheon of crime novelists. “I guess I never thought he would die. Really,” writes veteran novelist Ed Gorman (Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Save the Last Dance for Me) at the Mystery*File site. “I started reading him when I was in sixth grade and I’m now in my early sixties and he was always there. Until today.”

The author’s full name was Frank Morrison Spillane (“Mickey” being a nickname derived from his baptismal name, Michael). He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 9, 1918, though he grew up in a “tough neighborhood” of Elizabeth, New Jersey, southwest of Manhattan. He claimed later to have read all of Herman Melville and Alexander Dumas before he was 11 years old, and frequently mentioned Anthony Pope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) as his favorite novel. After high school, he briefly attended Kansas State College (now Fort Hays State University) in Hays, Kansas, without graduating. He returned to New York and began writing for comic books, among them Captain Marvel and The Human Torch. (It was “a great training ground for writers,” he’d remark in years to come. “You couldn’t beat it.”) Right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1941, Spillane joined the U.S. Army Air Force, serving as a cadet flight instructor and eventually earning the rank of captain.

Prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, Spillane had created a tough-guy private eye for the comics named Mike Danger, but couldn’t sell his adventures in an age when powerful costumed superheroes dominated center stage. After the war, however, Danger was able to make a comeback, this time with a new last name and a new home in novels. Editors Max Allan Collins and Lynn F. Myers Jr. recall this transformation in their 2004 collection of The Mick’s short fiction, Byline: Mickey Spillane.
In 1947, Mike Hammer was born in a tent in Newburgh, New York, where the recently discharged ex-Captain Mickey Spillane was trying to build a house through the G.I. bill during a particularly bitter winter. Spillane changed Mike Danger to Mike Hammer (the Hammer came from Hammer’s Bar and Grill, a Newburgh tavern), added Hammer’s secretary/P.I. partner Velda (derived from Wilma, a former Spillane girlfriend with a pageboy hairdo) and remembering both Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams from Black Mask and the sexy underpinnings from the Spicy pulp line, he sat down for nine days to write I, the Jury. The rest, as they say, is history.
In Jury, Hammer’s wartime best friend, former cop Jack Williams, who had lost an arm saving the gumshoe’s life in battle, is murdered while investigating a Park Avenue psychiatrist with criminal connections. After seeing his buddy’s corpse, Hammer vows to find and execute the murderer himself in the same manner that Williams was taken out, with “a .45 slug to the gut, just a little below the belly button.” Hammer and his New York cop pal, Captain Pat Chambers, probe this killing, while Williams’ slayer sets about to “remove” anyone capable of exposing her. The book is a complicated whodunit, filled with death and sex--sometimes linked--and concluding in a scene that’s often been cited as the height of nihilistic brutality. The Los Angeles Times recounts:
After discovering the killer is the seductively beautiful woman he has fallen for, Hammer plugs her with a .45 slug to her naked belly. The book’s final three lines:

“How c-could you?” she gasped.

I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.

“It was easy,” I said.
This was considered downright shocking in 1947, even after two decades and more of hard-boiled pulp stories, many containing shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later protagonists. No less than critic Anthony Boucher denounced I, the Jury as a “vicious ... glorification of force, cruelty, and extra-legal methods.” Others, write Collins and Myers, “condemned Mike Hammer’s creator as a vulgar pulpmeister who degraded the hard-boiled field that Hammett and Chandler had elevated. ... [Yet] the hysteria of the offended on both the left and the right only attracted attention to Spillane’s novels--i.e., you had to read them to see what the fuss was all about.” Although Jury didn’t do so well in hardcover, it attracted worldwide attention after being released in a 25-cent Signet paperback edition. “By 1952,” notes the L.A. Times, “4 million copies reportedly had been sold,” and the public’s appetite for Hammer had only been whetted.

Spillane quickly commenced satisfying that hunger, churning out a single standalone (1951’s The Long Wait, concerning an amnesiac who finally discovers his identity--as a murder suspect) and five more Hammer outings: My Gun Is Quick (1950), Vengeance Is Mine! (1950), One Lonely Night (1951), The Big Kill (1951), and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), that last reportedly being the first mystery novel to make the New York Times Bestseller List. Spillane had an “astonishing impact ... on post-war popular culture,” Ed Gorman recalls. “Hammer had enormous appeal to the vets trudging home from the war because he got things done. Period. Where many vets faced a stagnating economy, families they no longer felt a part of, and an inability to work through their war mentality--Mike Hammer, arrow-true, arrow-swift, solved all problems with fists and guns. A fantasy, yes, but an appealing one to disenchanted vets and my generation of boys that venerated those old Signet paperbacks.”

But then, Spillane suddenly stopped writing novels, supposedly because he wasn’t feeling “the urgent need for money” any longer, and because he wanted to explore other interests. For the next nine years, he composed fiction and non-fiction for magazines, many of which couldn’t pay the top dollar he’d been receiving for his work. He penned short stories for the fiction digest Manhunt, mused on the “enjoyment of women” for Man’s Magazine (“As long as you don’t try to understand them, you can probably enjoy them fully.”), and wrote non-fiction articles about car racing and scuba diving for the male adventure mag Cavalier. (According to Byline: Mickey Spillane, the author’s scuba-diving training for that piece led some years later to his uncredited appearance on the TV series Sea Hunt, when he “substituted for two actor/divers who refused to swim in a tank stocked with real sea life.”) In 1954, he even played himself in a circus movie called Ring of Fear, accepting no fee for his additional massaging of the script, but accepting a then new Jaguar convertible from producer John Wayne.

The first attempt to bring Mike Hammer to television came in that same year, 1954, with Brian Keith in the starring role and Blake Edwards (who would go on to create the landmark series Peter Gunn) in the director’s seat; the pilot wasn’t picked up. Four years later, Darren McGavin began portraying the Gotham shamus in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958-1960), though with some interpretation. “I thought it was a comedy,” McGavin later said of the show. “In fact, I played it camp. [Hammer] was the kind of guy who would’ve waved the flag for George Wallace.” (In a later series of the same name, Stacy Keach played the part with equal toughness but a less tongue-in-cheek air.)

It probably wasn’t his displeasure with McGavin’s Hammer that drove Spillane back to novel-writing, but it could well have been. The timing was right. In 1962, he resurrected his by-then-notorious P.I. in The Girl Hunters, which was filmed a year later with Spillane himself (no great actor, as it turned out) playing Hammer. Over the next quarter-century, the author produced six more Hammer novels, including The Snake (1964), Survival Zero (1970), and his last, Black Alley (1996). He also penned Day of the Guns (1964) and three other books starring a James Bond-ish figure named Tiger Mann, who works for an espionage agency funded by a radical right-wing billionaire. (Spillane, a sympathizer with “red-baiting” Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, friend of minarchist author Ayn Rand, and self-described super-patriot, was “perceived as right-wing. The vigilante approach Hammer used turned the stomachs of many liberals,” Collins explained in a January Magazine interview from a few years back.) Helping to round out Spillane’s oeuvre are The Erection Set (1972), an unusually long, Harold Robbins-esque work (with easily the best cover of any Spillane novel, featuring the author’s second wife, model Sherri Malinou, in the nude); a young-adult novel called The Ship That Never Was (1982); and his final published book, Something’s Down There (2003), a trouble-in-paradise yarn that January reviewer and private-eye fiction authority Kevin Burton Smith said “mixes a little Ernest Hemingway and Peter Benchley with a dash of John D. MacDonald and even a sprinkling of middle-aged romance.”

Despite the venom cast upon him at the height of his career, as Spillane progressed into his 80s--outliving most of his better-respected contemporaries, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, among them--a younger generation of men and women who’ve followed in this author’s footsteps finally started to give him some of the recognition he’d long deserved. Notable on that list of champions is Max Allan Collins, who worked with Spillane on collections of his work, a comic-book series starring a futuristic Mike Danger, and two independent films. In a message posted today on Sarah Weinman’s blog, Collins writes, in part:
What contemporary mystery readers (and writers) need to know about Mickey Spillane is simply this: he was the most important American mystery writer of the 20th century. Note I didn’t say “best,” or even “most popular,” though cases could be made in either case. ...

His Mike Hammer novels revitalized the mystery field in the post-war period, in particular the private eye story. The books were so hard-hitting and (for their time) sexy that the standard for what was acceptable in popular fiction changed drastically--once Mickey opened the door, a franker treatment and escalated level of sex and violence were the norm. ...

Hammer himself, with his vigilante tendencies and willingness to sleep with women, changed the tough guy hero forever. Without Hammer there is no Dirty Harry, certainly no James Bond, and SIN CITY is Frank Miller doing Spillane outright (and not getting called on it, because reviewers today have the sense of history of a gnat).

Spillane was the first author of popular fiction to achieve massive celebrity. He posed in Hammer mode with fedora and guns on book covers. John Wayne starred Mickey AS Mickey in the 1954 movie, RING OF FEAR (out on DVD just recently). Mickey appeared as Mike Hammer in THE GIRL HUNTERS (1961). Did Agatha Christie ever star as Miss Marple? Are there any movies with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle playing Sherlock Holmes? Don’t think so. ...

Finally, though he is dismissed as a misogynist (by critics who never read him), Spillane created strong women characters--villains sometimes, but also Hammer’s P.I. partner, the beautiful Velda.

He created a fever-dream noir New York that, thankfully, we can visit again and again.
Gorman adds that, though he found the “shoot-’em-stuff” in Spillane’s work “fun but not very believable,” what he “did take seriously was the mood set by the writing. For me, the best Spillane novels function as glimpses of American urban life as a new addition to Dante’s circles of hell. They are great cries of pain, greed, violence, loneliness, terror, deceit, perversion and mindless rage. Everybody Hammer meets--even the good people--is in danger of being consumed by the madness of simply trying to survive. It’s always midnight in Hammer-land, no matter what the clock might say otherwise.” In a subsequent note Gorman sent to yours truly, he calls Spillane “one of my generation’s true gods.”

Mickey Spillane didn’t see much promise in his efforts, initially. “I never thought anything big would come of all my writing,” he told a Washington Post interviewer five years ago. “I just always wrote the kind of stuff I like to read.” As it turns out, what he wanted to read was what many other people wanted to read, too: Some 200 million copies of Spillane’s novels have reportedly been sold over the last 50 years. (A famous anecdote has this author responding to “some New York literary type guy,” who’d remarked that it was “disgraceful that of the 10 best-selling books of all time, seven of them were written by you.” To which Spillane replied, “You’re lucky I’ve only written seven books.”) In 1995, the Mystery Writers of America named Spillane a Grand Master.

Now that he’s gone, now that it’s too late to try and understand him, maybe we can at least try to appreciate better what he left behind.

READ MORE:The Final Chapter for ‘Mick,’” by Johanna D. Wilson, Zane Wilson, and Steve Palisin (Myrtle Beach Sun); “Mickey Spillane, 88, Critic-Proof Writer of Pulpy Mike Hammer Novels, Dies,” by Richard Severo (The New York Times); “Mickey Spillane: Bestselling Writer of Shoot-em-up Crime Novels,” by John Sutherland (The Guardian); “‘Hammer’ Author Mickey Spillane Dies at 88,” by Neda Ulaby (National Public Radio); ); “The Mickster and Ideology,” by Tribe (Tribe’s Blog); “Hammer and Tongs,” by Bruce Grossman (Bookgasm); “Mickey Spillane Remembered as Inlet Booster,” by Clayton Stairs (Georgetown Times); “RIP: Mickey Spillane,” by Martha Fischer (Cinematical); Interview with Mickey Spillane, by Michael Carlson (Crime Time); “The Tough Guy Vanishes,” by Maxim Jakubowski (Sunday Times); Mike Hammer Trivia Quiz.

1 comment:

Jim Winter said...

I first read Spillane's THE DEEP in my twenties and liked it. Then I read a Mike Hammer (I think it was THE SNAKE) and thought, "Yuck." Probably wasn't the best Hammer to start with. So I ignored Spillane for several years.

Then about four years ago, I read I, The JURY. Knocked me flat on my ass. So I read MY GUN IS QUICK. Much more polished. And VENGEANCE IS MINE, what I term a meaner, more brutal I, THE JURY.

I'm hooked. So how did I change my mind about Spillane after all these years?

How could I?

It was easy.