Mickey Spillane; Tough-Guy Writer Of Mike Hammer Detective Mysteries

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Mickey Spillane, 88, who died July 17 in Murrells Inlet, S.C., was one of the world's most popular mystery writers. His specialty was tight-fisted, sadistic revenge stories, often featuring his alcoholic gumshoe Mike Hammer and a cast of evildoers who launder money or spout the Communist Party line.

His writing style was characterized by short words, lightning transitions, gruff sex and violent endings. It was once tallied that he offed 58 people in six novels.

Starting with "I, the Jury," in 1947, Mr. Spillane sold hundreds of millions of books during his lifetime and garnered consistently scathing reviews. Even his father, a Brooklyn bartender, called them "crud."

Mr. Spillane was a struggling comic book publisher when he wrote "I, the Jury." He initially envisioned it as a comic book called "Mike Danger," and when that did not go over, he took a week to reconfigure it as a novel.

Even the editor in chief of E.P. Dutton and Co., Mr. Spillane's publisher, was skeptical of the book's literary merit but conceded it would probably be a smash with postwar readers looking for ready action. He was right. The book, in which Hammer pursues a murderous narcotics ring led by a curvaceous female psychiatrist, went on to sell more than 1 million copies.

Mr. Spillane spun out six novels in the next five years, among them "My Gun Is Quick," "The Big Kill," "One Lonely Night" and "Kiss Me, Deadly." Most concerned Hammer, his faithful sidekick, Velda, and the police homicide captain Pat Chambers, who acknowledges that Hammer's style of vigilante justice is often better suited than the law to dispatching criminals.

In one typical passage from "The Big Kill," Hammer narrates: "I snapped the side of the rod across his jaw and laid the flesh open to the bone. I pounded his teeth back into his mouth with the end of the barrel . . . and I took my own damn time about kicking him in the face. He smashed into the door and lay there bubbling. So I kicked him again and he stopped bubbling."

Mystery specialist Anthony Boucher, writing in the New York Times, said that novel "may rank as the best Spillane -- which is the faintest praise this department has ever bestowed."

Mr. Spillane's success rankled other critics, who sometimes became very personal in their reviews. Malcolm Cowley called Mr. Spillane "a homicidal paranoiac," going on to note what he called his misogyny and vigilante tendencies.

Like Hammer, Mr. Spillane learned to keep emotion at a distance when discussing a lifetime of dreadful reviews. "I pay no attention to those jerks who think they're critics," he said. "I don't give a hoot about readin' reviews. What I want to read is the royalty checks."

His books were translated into many languages, and he proved so popular as a writer that he was able to transfer his thick-necked, barrel-chested personality across many media. With the charisma of a redwood, he played Hammer in "The Girl Hunters," a 1963 film adaptation of his novel.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he was a caricature of his tough-guy alter ego as a pitchman for Miller Lite beer, sporting a trench coat, a porkpie hat and a cantilevered blonde.

Frank Morrison Spillane was born March 9, 1918, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He described surviving a very tough neighborhood by inventing ghost stories to scare others his age otherwise intent on beating him up. By his high school graduation in 1935, he sold his first story to a pulp magazine.

He briefly attended college in Kansas and considered studying for the law before a friend got him a writing and editing job at Funnies Inc., a comic book publisher in Manhattan. He churned out one a day when other authors needed a week.

After stateside service in the Army Air Forces during World War II -- he was a cadet flight instructor -- he and two friends began a comic book business. About that time, he and his first wife bought several acres of land in Newburgh, N.Y., and he wrote "I, the Jury" to afford the $1,000 property.

During the next several years, Mr. Spillane received large royalty payments from film companies to turn his rush of books into motion pictures. The best was Robert Aldrich's 1955 version of "Kiss Me Deadly," with Ralph Meeker as Hammer going after a nuclear secret.

He also scripted several television shows and films and played a detective in the 1954 suspense film "Ring of Fear," set at a Clyde Beatty circus. He rewrote much of the film, too, refusing payment. In gratitude, the producer, John Wayne, surprised him one morning with a white Jaguar sportster wrapped in a red ribbon. The card read, "Thanks, Duke."

After a long hiatus from novel writing in the 1950s -- partly from his time-consuming conversion to the Jehovah's Witnesses -- he began a long run of books with characters other than Mike Hammer. He featured an antihero hoodlum in "The Deep" (1961) and "Me, Hood!" (1963), followed by books with protagonists named Tiger Mann, a former spy in the James Bond mold, and Mako Hooker, a former CIA agent who enjoys fishing.

He was fond of making wild claims about his literary stature. At one point early in his career, he was taunted at a dinner party by "some New York literary guy" who told him it was "disgraceful" that seven of the 10 best-selling books of all time bore Mr. Spillane's name. He replied, "You're lucky I've only written seven books."

Done initially on a dare from his publisher, Mr. Spillane wrote a children's book, "The Day the Sea Rolled Back" (1979), about two boys who find a shipwreck loaded with treasure. This won a Junior Literary Guild award.

He also wrote another children's novel, "The Ship That Never Was," and then wrote his first Mike Hammer mystery in 20 years with "The Killing Man" (1989). "Black Alley" followed in 1996. In the last, a rapidly aging Hammer comes out of a gunshot-induced coma, then tracks down a friend's murderer and billions in mob loot. For the first time, he also confesses his love for Velda but, because of doctor's orders, cannot consummate the relationship.

Late in life, he received a career achievement award from the Private Eye Writers of America and was named a grand master by the Mystery Writers of America.

In his private life, he neither smoked nor drank and was a house-to-house missionary for the Jehovah's Witnesses. He expressed at times great disdain for what he saw as corrosive forces in American life, from antiwar protesters to the United Nations.

He was long settled in Murrells Inlet, having once judged a beauty contest there and subsequently fallen in love with the beachside community where he fished, crabbed and skin-dived and housed an impressive gun collection.

His marriages to Mary Ann Pearce and Sherri Malinou ended in divorce. His second wife, a model, posed nude for the dust jacket of his 1972 novel "The Erection Set."

Survivors include his third wife, Jane Rodgers Johnson, a former beauty queen 30 years his junior; and four children from the first marriage.

He also carried on a long epistolary flirtation with Ayn Rand, an admirer of his writing.

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