[Editor’s note: This post is part of a continuing series on how writers craft words to express their ideas and to connect with readers.]
Mickey Spillane is regarded as one of the four “pillars” of the hard-boiled detective fiction genre, joining Dashiell Hammett (“The Maltese Falcon”), Raymond Chandler (“The Big Sleep”), and Ross MacDonald (“The Drowning Pool”). Yet, unlike the others, he never claimed to be an author, but merely a writer. In fact, he flaunted his lack of polish, insisting he wrote simply for the money, and cheerfully admitting he represented “the chewing gum of American literature.” I, the Jury, published in 1947, introduced his most famous hero, Mike Hammer. He was less a detective than an ultra-violent vigilante whose every case turned into a personal vendetta that inevitably ended with Hammer serving up justice out of the smoking barrel of a .45. And that was fine by Spillane.
Frank Morrison Spillane was born in 1918 in Brooklyn, New York, and he took up writing early in his life. In 1935 he started submitting his work to “slick” (i.e. illustrated) magazines, “working my way down,” as he later recalled, “to the comic books: Captain Marvel, Captain America, Superman, Batman – you name it, I did them all.” He also came up with the idea for his own comic based around a tough, hard-boiled private eye named Mike Danger. “I wanted to get away from the flying heroes, and I had the prototype cop,” he commented later on. When the book failed to sell, Spillane tried it as a comic strip; it appeared briefly in New York area newspapers and then disappeared. Spillane decided to make the switch to mystery writing.
The day following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Spillane enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force, where he flew fighter planes and taught cadets to fly. Once the war was over, he got a job in Barnum and Bailey’s circus as a trampoline artist and a professional knife thrower. More profitably, though, he returned to writing. At the time, story-based magazines were losing ground to paperback originals – pulp novels meant for the masses and sold at a mere 25 cents. He retooled the Danger character, re-named him Mike Hammer and supposedly churned out I, the Jury in a mere three weeks.
I, the Jury drew on the tradition of the hard-boiled, private investigator pioneered by Black Mask magazine during the 1930s. Raymond Chandler, perhaps the most notable writer from that magazine’s tradition, had nothing but contempt for Spillane though, commenting that “pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff.” Spillane had great success, however, and that had a major impact on the publishing industry. Although I, the Jury sold a fairly respectable 10,000 copies in hardcover, the book sold a then-unheard of two million copies in its paperback edition. That got the industry’s attention, and the Hammer books became a regular series.
Spillane had great faith in opening with the slam-bang, convinced that “the first page sells the book.” The remainder of each novel is stylistically quite direct and is written as a spoken monologue. Spillane knew he was writing pulp, and, as such, his guiding principle was that “violence will outsell sex every time,” but, combined, they will outsell everything. He proudly doled out large portions of both, and the public – at least the young, male portion of it – lapped it up.
He was also unapologetically conservative, an “unconditional believer in good and evil” who relished rattling every cage he could, slamming Communists and liberals and anyone else he took exception to. He also wasn’t above creating crude (even for the era) caricatures of independent women, homosexuals, and various racial and ethnic groups. His depiction of African Americans in the early Hammer novels, for example, are that they are all domestics or criminals or probably both, and his cringe-worthy caricatures seem obscenely gratuitous and mean-spirited, even for that time.
The literary establishment raked Spillane over the coals. Malcolm Crowley of The New Republic called him “a dangerous paranoid, sadist, and masochist,” and even his own editors sometimes couldn’t stomach his content. Spillane was unmoved by his detractors, saying “You can sell a lot more peanuts than caviar,” and “The literary world is made of second rate writers writing about other second rate writers.” And the scathing reviews? “I don’t give a hoot about reading reviews. What I want to read is the royalty checks.”
There were two long gaps in Spillane’s writing career. His conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1952 led to a 10-year hiatus while he sold bibles door-to-door (but he did earn substantial royalties during this period). He returned to writing – and specifically to Hammer – in 1961 with The Deep, often considered one of his best works. From then until 1972 he wrote steadily, even creating a new hero for the new time – Tiger Mann, a “secret agent.” First appearing in 1964’s Day of the Guns, the character was a direct response to Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, which Spillane felt stole some of his thunder.
Spillane’s second gap in full-length novel writing came between 1973 and 1989; however, on a dare from his publisher, he did try his hand at two children’s books, The Day the Sea Rolled Back (1979, for which he won the Junior Literary Guild Award) and The Ship That Never Was (1982). He also became somewhat famous to the American television-watching public for his appearance in Miller Lite beer commercials during this time. It was not his first go-around in front of the camera, though. He played Mike Hammer in the 1963 film version of The Girl Hunters, as well as cameo roles in other films.
Whether you like the content of the Hammer books or not, and whether you agree with Spillane’s approach to writing or are turned off by it, you have to admit that his vivid descriptions, short words, and fast transitions create a driving energy that compels the reader to keep turning the pages. Perhaps the best summation of Spillane’s importance as a writer comes from Max Allan Collins in The January Magazine Interview:
“Spillane broke down the barriers, where sex and violence were concerned, and this pissed people off. Also, he was perceived as right-wing. The vigilante approach Hammer used turned the stomachs of many liberals… (Spillane) is number three, after Hammett and Chandler (in a list of the 10 most important detective novelists of the 20th century). Anyone who doesn’t recognize Spillane’s importance is an idiot. There are paperback originals because Gold Medal Books was created to fill the public’s demand for Spillane-type fare. Disliking Spillane’s writing is one thing – ignoring history is another.”