Friday, March 09, 2018

Spillane’s Hundred

Were it not for the small inconvenience of his having died back in 2006, hard-boiled American crime-fiction writer Mickey Spillane—the self-proclaimed “Bubble Gum Champ of American Literature”—would today be trying to blow out candles on his 100th birthday cake. Even in his absence, commemorations of Spillane’s lengthy and successful career are imminent, or are at least in the process of being rolled out for the reading public’s enjoyment.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 9, 1918, Frank Morrison Spillane (“Mickey” was a sobriquet derived from his baptismal name, Michael) began his writing career “after his 1935 graduation from St. Erasmus High School in Brooklyn,” his longtime friend and collaborator, Iowa author Max Allan Collins, explains in a piece for the Winter 2018 edition of Mystery Scene magazine. “Working under house names and pseudonyms (Frank Morrison, among others), Spillane contributed short fiction to various slicks and pulps, including Collier’s and Hollywood Detective. He continued to sell short stories during his brief stint in 1939 at Kansas State Teacher’s College, where his attention went to football and intramural swimming, not his studies.” Following his move back to the Empire State, Spillane briefly got into the comic-book business before enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps (what is today’s Air Force) on the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—the disaster that drew America into World War II.

Collins says Spillane—who’d “learned to fly as a teenager”—spent most of his military stint “as a fighter pilot instructor” at an airbase in Greenwood, Mississippi. It was in that same state where he met and wed his first wife (of three). After returning to New York, he purchased property on the Hudson River with the intention of building a home there for his young family. To finance that dream, Spillane intended to join the ranks of detective-story writers. “The comic-book industry was in a slump,” writes Collins, “and a stalled independent comics project of his—a private-eye character, ‘Mike Danger’—would provide the basis for his book, he told his friends. They laughed. He turned the comic story into a mystery novel in less than three weeks (possibly in as few as nine days). The book was I, the Jury.”

Although the 1947 hardcover edition of I, the Jury—marking the initial appearance of Mike Hammer—didn’t set any sales records, its subsequent paperback version “sold more than eight million copies,” according to Collins, “a figure not including its many translations and hardbound editions.” It was enough to guarantee Spillane the writing career he needed and wanted. Over the next half-century, he’d deliver another dozen Mike Hammer yarns (along with more than 20 non-Hammer novels) and influence generations of younger storytellers. Spillane’s hard-headed, well-armed, and sometimes remorseless principal protagonist would not be confined to the printed page, but also won a life on radio, the silver screen, and (on and off) television. Despite critics who denounced Spillane’s stories as unduly violent and sexually provocative, in 1995 he received a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, placing him among a distinguished contingent of crime-fictionists that by then already included Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Ellery Queen, John le Carré, and Lawrence Block.

Not even Spillane’s demise at the arguably ripe old age of 88 brought an end to his publishing career.

Prior to his passing, the writer (he reportedly hated being called a “novelist”) asked Max Allan Collins to complete the Hammer book he was then laboring over, should he be unable to do so himself. Collins—familiar as the author of series starring Chicago gumshoe Nate Heller (Better Dead) and professional hit man Quarry (Quarry’s Climax)—not only fulfilled Spillane’s request, finishing the tale and seeing it released in 2008 as The Goliath Bone, but he gathered up stacks of the writer’s other unpublished and partial manuscripts from his residence in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. He has since been turning those into full-blown novels, short stories, and audiobooks.

Collins has a 10th Hammer book, Killing Town, due out from Titan in mid-April, with two more installments in the series—Murder, My Love and Masquerade for Murder—scheduled for publication between now and the spring of 2020. (Click here to find a chronology of the 23 Hammer novels already in existence.) Before then, on March 20, Hard Case Crime will issue The Last Stand, a hardcover combination of two non-Hammer Spillane yarns: the novella A Bullet for Satisfaction, a grim-toned, early career mystery about corruption in a small town and a tarnished cop on a crusade; and the more polished title story—the last book Spillane completed on his own—about an older, Spillane-esque pilot who makes an emergency landing in a desert region of the American Southwest and gets involved with a terrifically sarcastic Native American, the FBI, and less-than-compassionate fortune hunters. Collins acknowledges that he long ago squirreled all three of those manuscripts away, with the intention of bringing them to readers in association with the centenary of Spillane’s birth.

As if all of this weren’t enough by way of celebrating Spillane’s 100th birthday, Collins and Hard Case have planned a four-issue Mike Hammer comic-book series set to debut in June. And publisher Berkley has finally brought out The Mike Hammer Collection, Volume IV, comprising the concluding quartet of Spillane’s Hammer novels. (Sadly, Berkeley has put that collection on sale only in e-book format, while the preceding volumes were made available as paperbacks. We’ll have to see whether sales warrant a later print edition.)

(Above) Mickey Spillane and collaborator Max Allan Collins pose together at the San Diego Comic Con in 1994, where they were touting their Mike Danger comic book.

Hoping to learn more about all of these plans, I turned for help to Collins (who celebrated his own birthday last weekend—his 70th). He patiently answered my many questions, covering everything from the roots of his relationship with Spillane and his efforts to expand that writer’s oeuvre, to his impressions of Killing Town (starring a pre-I, the Jury Hammer), how he readies himself to work on new Spillane stories, and his favorite Hammer outings. I also inquired about Collins’ own next book projects—another Heller tale, plus a dual biography about mob boss Al Capone and Prohibition agent Eliot Ness.

J. Kingston Pierce: First off, could you please remind us of the circumstances involved in your meeting Mickey Spillane for the first time, and how your friendship with him grew over the years?

Max Allan Collins: I’ve told this story a lot, so anyone who wishes to skip to the next question has my blessing. At age 11 or so, I was caught up in the TV private-eye craze, typified by Peter Gunn and 77 Sunset Strip. Many of the series had a basis in novels, so The Thin Man led me to Dashiell Hammett, Philip Marlowe to I-think-you-know-who, and Mike Hammer to you-really-should-know-who.

I was always obsessive about reading the fiction that inspired TV shows and movies that I liked, and to look into the real history behind history-based TV and movies—still am. I researched Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler, in that order, and discovered that they were pretty much revered out of the gate. But when I researched my other favorite author, Mickey Spillane, I was flabbergasted to find that he was roundly reviled by reviewers as well as social commentators, who blamed him for everything from juvenile delinquency to the coarsening of popular culture.

So I became a defender of the most popular American mystery writer of the 20th century, writing about him in classes at the University of Iowa, publishing articles and essays that praised his work. I became known as the “go to” Spillane guy. That led, in 1981, to my being invited to be the liaison between Bouchercon (held in Milwaukee that year) and Mickey, who was a guest of honor. He was then doing the famous Miller Lite commercials—Miller made the convention appearance happen.

Now, I had written countless fan letters to Mickey since I was in junior high. I never received a reply, until finally in 1973, when my first two novels were published (Bait Money and Blood Money), he wrote me a warm letter welcoming me to the business.

So at the con, the organizers took me to Mickey’s hotel room and knocked. Mickey answered, looking just like himself, and the con folks introduced themselves and then pointed to me and said, “Mickey, this is Max Collins,” and Mickey grinned and said, “Oh, I know Max! We’ve been corresponding for years.” And I said, “That’s right, Mickey—a hundred letters from me and one letter from you!” He grinned and we were immediate friends. I interviewed him before the entire convention and we were a smash. And Mickey discovered that, despite the many attacks on him over the years, he was beloved by mystery fans.

I began visiting him at his South Carolina home about twice a year. Other than Dave Gerrity, who passed away after a year or two, I was the only writer Mickey had to talk to. We would talk deep into the night, and he would share the endings of Hammer stories not yet finished, sometimes not yet begun. We began doing projects together—anthologies of his work, and the work of others in the genre, and co-created a comic book, a science-fiction take on his Mike Danger character, which ran several years. And he was involved in my indie film projects—appearing in Mommy and Mommy’s Day, and cooperating on a documentary on his life and career, Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, which appears in somewhat condensed form on the Criterion release of Kiss Me Deadly.

We were close. His wife Jane says I was his literary son, and I certainly agree that he was my literary father. He was also my son Nate’s godfather.

JKP: Were you surprised, after Spillane died in 2006, that he had entrusted his many unfinished works to your care? And how useful was it, when you were struggling to turn those partial manuscripts into full novels or short stories, to know that Spillane had trusted your ability and judgment to do so?

MAC: Not long before his passing—pancreatic cancer took him down quickly—he called and asked if I would complete the Mike Hammer novel he was working on, The Goliath Bone—if necessary, as he still hoped to finish it himself. Of course, I said yes. Jane says a few days later he told her there’d be a “treasure hunt around here” after he was gone, and that she should give everything she found to me. That I would know what to do.

So, no, I have never felt intimidated or frightened or whatever about working on these manuscripts. And I’ve never had to struggle. If Mickey believed in me, why should I argue with him? And, remember, I was Chester Gould’s successor on [the comic strip] Dick Tracy, which had been my first obsession as a kid. And Chet was still around to look over my shoulder.

JKP: Break down for me how many substantive manuscripts Spillane left behind for you to complete, and how many partial stories you have managed to also turn into novels or short stories. And do you think that he, left with those same resources, would ever have brought such a trove of reading matter to market in the way you have?

MAC: I started out with six substantial manuscripts of 100 or more pages each, sometimes with character and plot notes, but not always. Two rough endings were part of the mix, but he had acted out the endings of three or four others in our late-night bull sessions in South Carolina. Sometimes there were alternate versions of chapters, in which case I would use portions of both. Now and then he started over—as when he misplaced the manuscript-in-progress of The Goliath Bone and just began again, only later to find the first version. And of course I combined and interspersed those as much as possible. What became Kiss Her Goodbye, one of the best of the collaborative novels, was two manuscripts with essentially the same opening but going in different directions as to plot—I used both, managing to make the two plots intersect. The unfinished follow-up to I, the JuryLady, Go Die!—was about 70 double-spaced pages, but was missing Chapter One. I didn’t tackle that for a while, in that one case somewhat intimidated, because writing the opening chapter of a Spillane novel was a big challenge. I had a first chapter to another otherwise unwritten Hammer novel that dealt with a similar situation, and I managed to use that in combination with those 70 pages.

Three manuscripts were not as substantial, 40 or 50 pages and sometimes notes, and in one case a rough ending (Murder Never Knocks). The most recent novel, The Will to Kill, was just two chapters—but in them Mickey set up the entire book, introducing all the major characters and the mystery itself, a rather Christie-esque hard-boiled novel.

Killing Town is a special case—fairly substantial, 60 or 70 double-spaced pages. To put it in context, a finished Hammer is around 300 double-spaced manuscript pages. The next two novels will be developed primarily from plot synopses and notes.

There were eight fragments that weren’t long enough to provide enough to properly develop a novel. These became short stories, which have been particularly well-received, with several Shamus nominations including a win [in 2014, for “So Long, Chief”), an Edgar nomination, and Scribe nominations and awards.

I should note that I edited, and wrote the last three chapters of Dead Street, a non-Hammer, and developed The Consummata, the sequel to The Delta Factor [1967], from a 100-page substantial Spillane manuscript.

Some of the things in Mickey’s files he would have got around to finishing, most likely—King of the Weeds was a book he was proud of, and Dead Street was active in one of his three offices. I also think he had, for some time, intended for me to use the unpublished material and complete and develop them for publication, to keep his legacy alive and make some bread for his beloved Jane. Ten years before his passing, he sent two of the unfinished manuscripts home with me for safekeeping—The Big Bang and Complex 90. Any number of times he’d give me an older partial manuscript of his, including what became Killing Town, and would say, “Maybe someday we’ll do something with this.”

JKP: We’ve talked several times over the last dozen years, and I don’t remember your ever saying a word about the two non-Mike Hammer stories that make up The Last Stand. Were you holding out on me and other poor interviewers, thinking that those works needed to be saved—in secret—for publication on what would have been the author’ s 100th birthday?

MAC: Jane and I, and several publishers including Charles Ardai [of Hard Case Crime], discussed starting a posthumous program for Mickey with The Last Stand, as it was his final completed work. Near completion was Dead Street, and The Goliath Bone existed in a nearly complete but essentially condensed form. The latter reflected Mickey racing to finish it with his own end breathing down on him.

But The Last Stand was not typical Spillane and it did not feature Mike Hammer. I felt that we had to put the emphasis on Hammer, who Mickey called his “bread and butter boy.” Dead Street was also a good one to bring out early on, because it dealt with the aging tough guy in a more direct way than The Last Stand.

So I was waiting for the right moment, specifically after I had gotten the six substantial manuscripts completed—The Goliath Bone, The Big Bang, Kiss Her Goodbye, Lady, Go Die!, Complex 90, and King of the Weeds. I felt those novels, on which Mickey had invested a lot of effort, several of which had been announced at various times by his publisher, were the novels that we had to get out there. And to these I would add the non-Hammer Dead Street and The Consummata.

That was the minimal goal I gave myself. It went well enough to continue with the shorter but significant manuscripts, and to develop short stories from the more fragmentary Hammer material.

JKP: When did you begin planning this 100th birthday celebration?

MAC: Well, in 2006, I was not thinking about 2018. But several years ago it seemed to me that the two special manuscripts—The Last Stand and Killing Town—that I had put away early on would make perfect bookends for the centenary … the last solo Spillane novel, and the first Mike Hammer.

JKP: Let’s talk about the stories included in The Last Stand. Were they both pretty much completed by the time you acquired them, or did you have to piece together versions and scraps and add a lot of your own writing before they could be published?

MAC: I was strictly an editor on The Last Stand. Sometimes I was an intrusive and presumptuous one, but my job was editorial, based on a conversation with Mickey, who had wanted to tighten and touch it up. That’s what I did. The story is driven by the quite wonderful dialogue, but occasionally dialogue exchanges went on too long and the book did have some redundancy that I pruned. But that novel is pure Spillane.

A Bullet for Satisfaction was a mysterious manuscript. It was written on Spillane’s distinctive yellow typescript, but the first and last sections were double-spaced, while the middle section was single-spaced as was Mickey’s habit, and was more obviously his work. I suspect that Mickey was collaborating with one of the so-called “satellite” writers—Joe Gill, Earle Baskinsky, Charlie Wells, or most likely Dave Gerrity—doing the plotting and supervising, then at a key point stepping in and taking over, before tossing it back to one of his pals. This is only a theory, and it’s certainly a typical pre-1960 Spillane novella.

One of the reasons I think Spillane only wrote the middle part by himself is that the rest of it was rough and needed some love. I provided that. I wound up being the co-writer of what is almost a crystallization of every Gold Medal Books-era theme and convention. In that way, I think it’s a lot of fun.

Also, The Last Stand, the novel, is on the short side—40-some-thousand words. And editor Charles Ardai and I thought the book could use some extra heft. An unpublished novella from early in Mickey’s career seemed like a fun way to introduce his final work, and satisfy readers who wanted the sex-and-violence melodrama they expect from Spillane.

JKP: You’re right, A Bullet for Satisfaction is straight out of the 1950s hard-boiled realm, with a brutish protagonist, more than one easily available woman, and abundant duplicity. You suggest in your introduction to this new book that Spillane could have sold it to one of his regular magazine markets. Yet I have to wonder whether Spillane didn’t see it as too typical of the breed, too full of familiar tropes, and too much like other stories he had penned to get excited about peddling it. What do you think?

MAC: Mickey sold many novellas to Cavalier, Saga, and Manhunt in the period between Kiss Me, Deadly (1952) and The Deep (1960). A Bullet for Satisfaction was fairly typical. I think it was never marketed because it needed more work, which I put into it, something Mickey hadn’t bothered to do.

JKP: While readers can enjoy The Last Stand later this month, it won’t be till mid-April that the 10th Mike Hammer novel you’ve issued into the world, Killing Town, will become available. As I understand it, Spillane began that book even before he concocted I, the Jury, his first published Hammer yarn. Why did Mickey abandon this novel? And what sort of polishing did you have to do to make it publishable?

MAC: Mickey actually sat and watched me reading the partial manuscript, grinning, very pleased by my astonished reaction to the very brown, brittle manuscript. It was very substantial—between 60 and 70 double-spaced pagers. Very well written. I didn’t have to polish it much at all. The trick was finding a way to pay off his very intriguing, imaginative premise, which I frankly think may have stumped him, as a young writer. I think he painted himself into a bit of a corner, because the story would seem inevitably to lead to Hammer marrying the heroine. The alternative would be to have her die, which was tonally wrong for the story, which was brutal in its violence but oddly good-hearted. It’s far, far superior to, say, A Bullet for Satisfaction.

JKP: Is the Mike Hammer we see in Killing Town very different from the pistol-packing P.I. we’ve grown to know and love?

MAC: He’s recognizable as the same guy, but he’s young—fresh back from combat in the Pacific. He’s absolutely just as prone to violence as the Hammer of the early six books.

JKP: Also, as I’ve heard, there’s no Velda Sterling in Killing Town. At what point in his development of Hammer did he decide the gumshoe needed a buxom secretary-cum-partner to smooth his harder edges?

MAC: I can’t say. He never shared that with me. I think you have to look at Killing Town as Mickey getting the character up on its feet, but realizing that the character would need, if taken into a series, a secondary cast, a support system. Interestingly, in Lady, Go Die!, his abandoned follow-up to I, the Jury that I completed, Hammer is overtly in love with Velda, and I think that’s why he dropped it—he didn’t want Hammer tied down yet. The next Hammer he wrote was The Twisted Thing [1966], and Velda isn’t in that one—as in Lady and for that matter Killing Town, Hammer is not in New York, but has hopped a rail to a smaller town north of the city. Killing Town has more in common with the non-Hammer The Long Wait [1951] than with I, the Jury.

JKP: How do you view this new Killing Town in relation to the remainder of the Mike Hammer canon?

MAC: I think it works well as the first book, as an introduction to the character. One way I tried to enhance that, to help Mickey set things up in a way, is by introducing Pat Chambers (via a phone call) as Mike’s pal at the NYPD. Pat, however, is in uniform at this point. I even have Pat complain about running interference for Mike, and advising him to get a secretary.

A big part of this effort has been to place these “new” old manuscripts in the context of the Hammers that Mickey published. To make clear where both Mickey and Mike are, in the context of the times, of the canon. Where their heads are at.

JKP: Do you have favorite works among the now 23 Hammer novels? Which do you think most deserve to be read by crime-fiction fans who’ve never sampled the series?

MAC: My favorite, of course, is One Lonely Night [1951]. But it’s awfully strong medicine for a first-time reader. I, the Jury still works, because everything builds from there (so would Killing Town, I believe). Really any of the first six will tell you what you need to know about the character.

I frankly am proud of, and like very much, all of the Hammer books I’ve completed. It tickles me no end to see those books next to Mickey’s on a shelf in my office, a number of the titles having been announced when I was a teenage fan of his, and now finally being able to put them there.

I am particularly fond, where the collaborations are concerned, of Kiss Her Goodbye and King of the Weeds. From a craft standpoint, I like Complex 90 because Mickey had begun his manuscript with Hammer telling a very condensed version of his adventures behind the Iron Curtain. I dropped a lot of that, though left the context of Hammer being interrogated at the Pentagon, then flashing back for a lengthy section taking the readers to Russia with Hammer—seeing those adventures. That’s a rare book among the collaborations, because the Mickey stuff isn’t at the beginning, except for Chapter One, it’s in the middle. I also like that it’s a sequel to The Girl Hunters [1962].

JKP: What do you think you have brought to the Hammer stories over these last dozen years? How have you affected the protagonist (or Velda and Pat Chambers), either deliberately or unintentionally?

MAC: I am confident that I have been true to them. Because all of these novels and stories have real Spillane content, staying in Mickey’s zone is natural and necessary. The only difference, and perhaps it’s significant, is the humor. I employ more humor, and you often see in the reviews mention of Mike being “a wisecracking private eye.” That had already been true; a humor element—a self-aware irony—is part of Spillane, but my natural bent in that direction comes through. But Mickey was a scamp, as my wife would say, very aware that he was doing outrageous, over-the-top things, particularly by way of black humor.

JKP: Spillane didn’t seem as fond of the short-story form as you are; I believe he published only four such abbreviated tales during his lifetime, and two of those he eventually turned into novels. Could one of your chief contributions to the Hammer canon, then, be that you’ve published at least twice as many Hammer short stories as Spillane did?

MAC: Mickey’s favorite form was the novella. Why he never wrote a novella about Hammer, I can’t say—I think perhaps he wanted to reserve him for novels and the income those represented. Certainly the heroes of his novellas are cut from Hammer’s cloth.

The two short stories [Spillane sold himself] were actually condensations of The Killing Man and Black Alley [1996], and I believe that was done editorially at Playboy, which published them. [“The Killing Man,” featured in the December 1989 edition of Playboy, went on to win the 1990 Shamus Award for Best P.I. Short Story.] The other two stories include an atypical humorous tale that Lynn Myers [the co-editor, with Collins, of 2004’s Byline: Mickey Spillane) and I discovered in Mickey’s files, and a short story that I developed from an unproduced radio play that Mickey wrote in the early ’50s. We needed a Hammer story for one of our anthologies, and with Mickey’s blessing, I short-story-ized the script, intended for a half-hour show. It appeared under Mickey’s byline, and really it was his work, just transferred to prose.

The short stories I have done were a result of wanting to utilize fragments that could not reasonably be developed into novels. There were eight such fragments and they have been collected in A Long Time Dead: A Mike Hammer Casebook [2016]—another good place for a reader to meet Hammer for the first time.

JKP: Are there still more Hammer short stories to come?

MAC: Probably not. There are some good fragments and first chapters left, but they are non-Hammer and would need to be converted, if possible. Every story in A Long Time Dead was conceived by Mickey for Mike Hammer.

JKP: If I remember correctly, you told me once that a principal contribution you have made to the Hammer books you’ve completed is adding more sex and violence to their plots. I find that surprising and amusing, given that Spillane wasn’t exactly known for his restraint in such matters. How can this be?

MAC: First of all, that was me being glib. But in The Goliath Bone, there was wonderful action in the opening, and also in the last chapter he roughed out, but that was all. He also didn’t include a murder mystery aspect. I added that, and more action and a little sex. Certain things are expected in a Hammer novel.

His somewhat on-again/off-again relationship with the Jehovah's Witnesses is why some of his manuscripts were lacking in typical Spillane elements. Interestingly, a few days before he died, his wife said, “You do know if you hand these things off to Max, he won’t hesitate where sex and violence are concerned. Max is not a Jehovah’s Witness, after all.” Mickey told her he was well aware of that and was fine with whatever I did in that regard. Of course, maybe he just figured he was going to heaven and if I wanted to go in another direction, that was my choice.

The most important point I want to make is that these are collaborations. Mickey himself started each of them and then, in a blanket manner, I admit, handed them off to me. I am not “continuing” Mike Hammer. I’m completing work Mickey began. That’s unique in the history of the genre, I think, at least with somebody on Spillane’s level.

Purists may be outraged, but I never just plop down Mickey’s partial manuscript and pick up where he left off. I do some polishing and also expand scenes and add scenes, in particular, putting things on stage that Mike only refers to. My cutting Mike’s brief description of his Russian adventures in Complex 90 and replacing them with a number of chapters fleshing those adventures out—putting them on stage—is perhaps the best example. More typical would be The Big Bang, where in the first chapter I put on stage a scene describing the D.A. and Hammer going at each other, which Mickey only had Mike refer to. Where the 100-page manuscripts were concerned, I usually turned them into 200 of the 300 pages—that served to put Spillane material deeper in the novel, and it also created a joint style that has had a lot to do with reviewers saying they can’t tell where Mickey’s stuff ends and mine begins.

JKP: With Killing Town, you will have brought out 10 additional Hammer novels since the author’s demise. You have a couple more scheduled for release over the next two years. But will those 12, then, signal the end of your contribution to this famous series—one fewer book than Spillane wrote? Or is there still material to plumb beyond that?

MAC: There is probably enough material for another three. But if it ends at 12, plus the short-story collection, that would have me doubling the number of Hammer books, which has been a goal of mine as this project really got going.

JKP: Can you see yourself writing a Hammer novel completely from your own imagination in the future?

MAC: No. I see my job as not “continuing” the Mike Hammer series, but completing Spillane’s unfinished or unrealized works. There is such a wealth of material in the remaining unpublished material that I would, for example, rather complete a non-Mike Hammer thriller he began than do my own Mike Hammer. Or to convert that non-Hammer material, where possible, into Hammers.

Yet I view these Mike Hammer novels, and The Consummata and Dead Street, as “my own” as well, because I consider the work as collaborative—reflecting both my late co-author and myself. I bridle when I see a reviewer—and they’ve been almost universally kind to me about the Spillane continuations, so I’m probably petty to complain—describing these books as “pastiche.” When Spillane enlisted me, it was to be his co-writer. I am not trying to write ersatz Spillane, I am writing authentic Spillane/Collins. I consider myself part of the mid-20th-century group of writers that begins with Hammett and probably ends with Donald E. Westlake, [Lawrence] Block and myself, among a few others of course. I began writing in the ’60s, publishing in the early ’70s, and—as I’ve mentioned—my first agent, Knox Burger, called me (when he took me on in ’71) “a blacksmith in an automotive age.”

Whatever my faults, I’m the real thing. The tail-end real thing, perhaps. But part of that group and proud to be so. Rex Stout and Agatha Christie and Ed McBain were still writing when I first published a crime novel. So, significantly, was Mickey.

JKP: What do you do to get yourself into the right frame of mind to tackle a Hammer novel? How differently do you approach those tales than you do your own books?

MAC: First off, I read Spillane at an early age—took his prose like vitamins. He’s in my blood. Second, when I’m going to start one of the collaborative novels, I work hard to figure out when Mickey wrote it. Then I re-read several novels from that same time frame. For The Big Bang, I re-read The Body Lovers [1967] and Survival…Zero! [1970]. Marked them up like a lesson for school, highlight pen and all. For Lady, Go Die! I obviously re-read I, the Jury as well as The Twisted Thing, which to some degree was an elaborate reworking of what he began in the unfinished Lady. King of the Weeds is a direct sequel to Black Alley, which I read and re-read, as well as the previous Hammer, The Killing Man [1989].

I don’t try to write like Mickey. I just try to stay consistent with the tone and approach of the partial manuscript at hand, and get Mike Hammer right.

JKP: You’re more liberal-minded than Spillane. Do you ever find yourself overcompensating to stay true to Hammer’s perspective?

MAC: No. When I enter a character, I stay there. That’s a big part of my job. Do you think Quarry and I share politics? That Nolan, Eliot Ness, Ms. Tree, and I would see eye-to-eye on everything?

JKP: Since Mike Hammer and your man, Nate Heller, are contemporaries in the world of fiction, how do you think they would view each other, were they ever to meet?

MAC: They would each think, “There goes one dangerous, crazy son of a bitch.”

JKP: Let’s go back a bit: Spillane started out as a writer working in the pre-World War II comic-books industry. How did he embark on a career penning detective novels, instead?

MAC: Mickey was a prolific writer in the pre-war comics field and rejoined it immediately after the war. He did a lot of one- and two-page prose stories for comic books, to fill a postal requirement of a comic book having to contain a certain minimum number of pages of prose. He also wrote characters like Submariner and Captain America. Before the war he developed a P.I. character for comics called Mike Lancer, which appeared for a single story in a Green Hornet issue. He re-named the character Mike Danger, and tried to market it around 1945, didn’t get anywhere, and re-named Mike again and tried him in a prose novel … I, the Jury.

JKP: How did his start in comics wind up benefiting him as a novelist?

MAC: Several ways. Because he’d published in the pulps and slicks as early as college, he was tapped by editors to write those prose pieces. As a comics writer, he learned to think visually and to write efficiently. And of course he was a fulltime working writer, a pro, even before he moved into novel writing.

JKP: Is it true that Spillane’s first novel, I, the Jury, didn’t sell well in hardcover, and it was only because the book was released later in paperback that his publishing career took off?

MAC: I, the Jury in hardcover was not a bomb, but neither was it a hit. Mickey’s second completed novel, not published till 1966—For Whom the Gods Would Destroy, which became The Twisted Thing—was rejected by Dutton. But I, the Jury in paperback was an explosive success. That changed everything, not just for Mickey, but in mystery fiction, specifically, and in the paperback realm, generally.

JKP: So what has often been said, that Spillane changed the whole crime-fiction publishing scene in America during the mid-20th century, is correct? It was largely he who brought about the explosion in paperback crime-novel publishing?

MAC: He was entirely responsible. More mainstream fiction, like God’s Little Acre [by Erskine Caldwell] and [Kathleen Winsor’s] Forever Amber, brought a new rawness, in particular regarding sexuality, to the fore, but it was I, the Jury that took the traditional tough mystery and revitalized it with Mickey’s sex, violence, and mastery of engaging first-person narration. Gold Medal Books from Mickey’s distributor, Fawcett, created the first truly successful paperback-originals line to service the huge audience that Mickey had uncovered.

JKP: And how quickly did Spillane’s commercial success start influencing other authors? A few writers, such as the aforementioned Charlie Wells and Dave Gerrity, touted their Spillane influences. But who else was affected by Spillane’s style, early on?

MAC: Well, everybody who wrote tough mysteries. They may not have been stylistically influenced, but taking advantage of the newly unleashed sex and violence aspects were such writers as Richard S. Prather (Mickey’s most successful imitator), Stephen Marlowe, John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, David Goodis, and a host of forgotten writers who worked the sex-and-violence mines. The other influential writer was James M. Cain. In the 1950s, it was tough to find a hard-boiled mystery that wasn’t either a reworking of I, the Jury or The Postman Always Rings Twice.

JKP: By the time he published his final Hammer novels, in the 1980s and ’90s, Spillane was no longer considered such a pariah in the crime-fiction arena. He was even given the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award in 1995. But did the author still hold a grudge for all the years he’d been rejected by critics and other writers alike?

MAC: Let’s establish, first, that writers like Robert L. Fish were adamant about deriding Mickey. He was the only writer I know of who was blacklisted where the Mystery Writers of America is concerned. Stories vary, but either Mickey was turned down or it was made known that he was not welcome. He was lumped in with comic books as a bad influence on kids and adults alike by Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose comics screed, Seduction of the Innocent, focused on comic books and one prose writer—Spillane.

So after all of my efforts—and that of others, like Otto Penzler and Don Westlake—the MWA was convinced to finally recognize Mickey. At the Edgar banquet, where he was presented with the Grand Master, Mickey was warmly received—really, a hero’s welcome, albeit decades late. As for Mickey, he was gracious and held no grudge. Not at all. He loved other writers.

JKP: When you set out to expand the Hammer series, were you at all concerned there might no longer be an audience for Spillane’s P.I.?

MAC: I understood that largely because Mickey’s output had been less than prolific in his later years, Hammer would not have the purchase today that he deserved. But I knew that for a writer who’d sold in his numbers and who had generated fairly recent TV series—Stacy Keach was Hammer in three series and a bunch of TV movies as late as the ’90s—a sufficient audience would be waiting. Also, [the 1955 film] Kiss Me Deadly was gaining recognition at a startling rate as a key film noir.

JKP: In addition to The Last Stand and Killing Town, this 100th anniversary of Spillane’s birth will be celebrated with a four-issue comic-book series, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, that Hard Case Crime is launching in June. You’ve already had experience turning Spillane characters into comic-book protagonists, and were instrumental in bringing out a handsome hardcover collection of his 1950s comic strip, From the Files of … Mike Hammer. But this new Hard Case series is something distinctive. My understanding is that its storyline is adapted from a never-produced screenplay Spillane wrote in the ’50s, titled “The Night I Died.” Is that correct?

MAC: Mickey wrote “The Night I Died” in a number of versions. The chief sources for the graphic novel are a one-hour unproduced Hammer teleplay written in the late ’50s and a screenplay I based on and expanded from that, with Mickey’s blessing, around 20 years ago. Mickey’s friend and TV producer, Jay Bernstein, was interested in doing it, but passed away before he could.

JKP: Can you tell us what the plot of “The Night I Died” entails? Did the original screenplay feature Hammer or another protagonist? And what made you think this story was the right one for comic-book treatment?

MAC: It’s a classic noir set-up—Mike Hammer helps a damsel in distress who has been targeted by mobsters who think her late mobster boyfriend entrusted her with his considerable ill-gotten gains. Mickey had used all of the elements that made I, the Jury famous in his teleplay. There were several versions of it in his files, sometimes with Hammer, sometimes with “the Mick,” essentially a renamed Hammer because at that moment the character was tied up where TV and movie rights were concerned. What my screenplay added, expanding Mickey’s, were visual elements and action scenes that make it even more right for graphic-novel treatment.

I should add that having a comic book out there for the centenary seemed like a must to everybody at Titan and Hard Case Crime.

JKP: I see that the primary cover for Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer was painted by Robert McGinnis. You’ve been awfully lucky to have so many of your own, non-Hammer works graced by McGinnis paintings. Was the one we see on this forthcoming comic rendered specifically for that publication? If not, how did you snag it for this project? Will more of McGinnis’ work grace the fronts of the next three installments of this comic-book series?

MAC: As I think you know, Quarry was revived when Charles Ardai asked me to do a new novel about the character, and I said yes—but only if McGinnis did the cover [see 2006’s The Last Quarry]. What a dream come true—I’ve had five now, I think. To be honest, this cover was intended for a Quarry, but Charles and I thought it would make a better Mike Hammer. The other comic-book covers are also terrific, by several other wonderful artists. Hard Case Crime is justly famous for its fantastic retro cover art.

JKP: In 1954, writer/director Blake Edwards—who would later go on to create the popular Peter Gunn—made a pilot for a Mike Hammer TV series starring Brian Keith. Have you seen that pilot, and do you have any insight into why it was rejected? Incidentally, to which network did Edwards try to sell the series?

MAC: I imagine all the networks looked at the Edwards pilot, which was rejected because of its violence. I located a print of the pilot, after a lot of digging, and it appeared on my anthology DVD, Shades of Neo-Noir, a few years ago. We may bring it out again on a projected double-feature DVD of my complete Spillane documentary and the one I did on Alley Oop cartoonist V.T. Hamlin, a fellow Iowan.

Edwards, of course, then created the slicked-up Hammer variation, Peter Gunn. The feature film version, Gunn, lifts the ending of Vengeance Is Mine! [1950].

JKP: Hammer finally made it to TV with the syndicated Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958-1960), starring Darren McGavin. TV Guide decried that half-hour show as “easily the worst series on TV,” and McGavin said of it: “I thought it was a comedy. In fact, I played it camp.” How much influence did Spillane have on that program?

MAC: Mickey was sent the scripts. He may have given notes. His chief complaint was McGavin using a .38 revolver, not Hammer’s trademark .45. Mickey thought the show was pretty good otherwise, and liked McGavin’s take. McGavin did bring humor to the series, but it was still very, very tough. Despite the absence of Velda, it’s among the best Hammer-to-screen transfers. McGavin resembled Mickey, who was posing in a fedora with .45 in hand on the paperback covers around then.

JKP: Which leads me to ask, of course, what Spillane thought of the better-remembered Hammer TV series, also titled Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (later The New Mike Hammer and eventually re-introduced as Mike Hammer, Private Eye). It took two pilot films to sell that show to CBS-TV—the first one starring Kojak alumnus Kevin Dobson, the second headlined by Stacy Keach. Was Spillane much interested in what the boob-tube did with his gumshoe by this time?

MAC: Mickey and [Mike Hammer] producer Jay Bernstein were very, very close. Mickey loved Stacy Keach as a man and an actor, and liked the show, but privately didn’t care for the handling of the women, who all mooned instantly over Keach’s Hammer. But the show was a great latter-day, slightly spoofy version of Hammer in line with Mickey’s 18-year run doing his Hammer-esque version of himself in Miller Lite commercials.

I’ve done a number of Hammer projects with Stacy, and he is a wonderful guy, and remains a booster of the character and of Mickey.

Spillane played Mike Hammer in 1963’s The Girl Hunters.

JKP: There were also several big-screen films made from the Hammer yarns, in one of which (The Girl Hunters, 1963) the author himself starred as his hard-boiled creation. Other than himself, perhaps, did Spillane think any of the actors in those flicks did Hammer justice? Or did he really care? After all, we are led to understand that Spillane was concerned more with money than art, and of course he would have been paid for Hollywood’s use of his character.

MAC: Mickey didn’t like any of the movies. I think he was wrong and told him so. Jim Traylor and I went into this in detail in our Mickey Spillane on Screen [2012]. I made the case for Kiss Me Deadly to Mickey and he gradually came around. By the end of his life he was citing Ralph Meeker as the best screen Hammer … next to himself.

JKP: I think many readers aren’t aware that in addition to bringing more Hammer novels to bookstores, you’ve also been working on a Western-fiction series featuring a “larger-than-life lawman” by the name of Caleb York. That, too, is based on a character Spillane created—specifically for his friend John Wayne. No motion picture was ever produced from Spillane’s original York screenplay, but you adapted it as The Legend of Caleb York (2015), the initial book in the series. There have since been two sequels, including The Bloody Spur, which was released this last January by publisher Kensington. How did you decided to build a series around this character, and had you ever discussed the idea with Spillane?

MAC: That was Kensington editor Michaela Hamilton’s doing. My wife, Barb, and I do the Antiques cozy series for Michaela, who is a big Spillane fan—she was my Nate Heller editor at NAL [New American Library] and appears in my Spillane documentary. Knowing that Kensington is big in the Western area, I mentioned to her that I had a Western screenplay Mickey had done for John Wayne. Immediately she said, “I want three.” Flabbergasted, I said, “There’s only one screenplay.” She didn’t care—she wanted to launch a series with a three-book contract. I discussed it with Jane Spillane and we decided to say yes. A lot of baby boomers are into Westerns and I knew the Spillane byline would still resonate there.

JKP: So what are you using as source material for these novels you credit first to Mickey Spillane?

MAC: The novels following the first one are my work. They’re the only Spillane books with both our names on them that are exclusively me. But I refer to various drafts of the screenplay, and explore the back-story Mickey created. My wife, Barb, encouraged me to stick with the town and secondary characters established in the screenplay, to keep the series grounded in Mickey’s vision.

JKP: What are your future plans for the York series?

MAC: I have two more to do, at least. I’m viewing it as an ongoing saga. Trinidad, New Mexico, will grow; some recurring characters will die. It’s also possible I’ll flashback to York’s days as a Wells Fargo detective. The key is to make sure there’s a strong mystery or crime element, which a book with Mickey’s name on it needs.

JKP: Since I have your attention, let me ask about a couple of your own writing projects. You’ve been working for some while now on a 17th Nate Heller novel, which will involve your Chicago-based P.I. in the 1954 Sam Sheppard murder case. Can you tell us anything about how you’ve inserted Heller into that infamous Ohio mystery? Does this book have a title yet, and when might we expect it to go on sale? And how has the writing of this latest Heller outing compared with the work you’ve done on earlier entries in that series?

MAC: The book, Do No Harm, has been completed and delivered to my Forge editor. I think it comes out in the late fall. It differs from previous Hellers somewhat, because the on-stage sex and violence quotient is lower than usual—it’s a genuine mystery novel. There are two sections—in one, Heller is working for Erle Stanley Gardner and the Court of Last Resort, and in the second he’s an investigator hired by [criminal defense attorney] F. Lee Bailey.

It was unexpectedly a hard book to research and write. I thought the subject would be more manageable than, say, Amelia Earhart or the JFK assassination. But the complexities of the Sheppard case are massive. Also, I pulled back on the sex because the crime is in part a sex crime and scenes of Heller having happy sex would have been tonally wrong, and in bad taste even for me. Also, opportunities for action scenes were scant. This was just not that kind of case. But I think Heller fans, and new readers too, will like it.

A Heller novel is dictated, to a very large degree, by the true crime it explores.

JKP: Also, I see that Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago—the non-fiction book you wrote with A. Brad Schwartz—is finally due out from publisher Morrow in August. The book is touted as “groundbreaking,” but can you tell us what makes it so? There have been a lot of books written over the decades about both Ness and Capone. What about their stories has not been told already? And how challenging was it to write a non-fiction biography, after training yourself for so many years as a fiction writer?

MAC: Frankly, neither the Capone nor the Ness story has been adequately, accurately told. A level of research here, much of it conducted by my co-writer, Brad Schwartz, really is groundbreaking and will change how Capone’s tax trial is viewed, for one thing, and what the role of Ness and The Untouchables was—which was much more significant than the Ness naysayers would have you believe.

It was indeed a challenging, difficult book—a hard birth for a beautiful baby, though. And, remember, I’ve done my share of non-fiction before. Also, the Hellers and other historical novels of mine have been extensively researched. This book grows out of theories and discoveries I made in the Heller and Ness novels I’ve written.

JKP: What did co-author Schwartz bring to this endeavor?

MAC: Brad is a terrific writer and a dogged, inventive researcher. He did rough draft material for me on half of the book and provided specific research material for the other half. He also came up with an epilogue about Chicago that is really masterful—I did little more than tweak that part.

He wrote an excellent book about Orson Welles and the “War of the Worlds” radio show, Broadcast Hysteria. He’s also going for a doctorate in history at Princeton. Apparently, he couldn’t get into Muscatine Community College like I did.

JKP: Finally, let me ask after your health. Back in 2016, you had some heart problems that necessitated bypass surgery and the installation in your chest of a heart value (if I understand the extent of your treatment properly). Have you had any further complications since? How are you feeling in general these days?

MAC: I won’t bore you with the details, but I’m doing very well. This is my 70th birthday as I write this, and I even seem to have survived this endless interview. My heart surgery was a success, two years ago now, and last year I had equally successful lung surgery. Now and then something crops up, but we deal with it. I am working harder and am happier than ever, delighted to be on the green side of the grass. And no one ever had a more beautiful, talented, supportive wife than Barb Collins.

READ MORE:Isn’t It About Time We Stopped Loathing Mickey Spillane?” by Bill Morris (Daily Beast); “Mickey Spillane: American Master of Sex and Violence,” by Jeff Nilsson (The Saturday Evening Post); “10 Wry Quotes from Mickey Spillane,” by Rowan Jones (For Reading Addicts); “The Man Who Gave Us Mike Hammer” (National Public Radio); “Interview with Mickey Spillane” (The Strand Magazine); “Mickey and Me,” by Max Allan Collins (January Magazine); “Mickey Spillane,” by Lawrence Block (Mystery Scene).

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