The red sedan had New York plates, a redhead behind the wheel, and a burly guy beside her who looked like he felt comfortable packing a gun.
It hurtled down the winding road, kicking up dust. It balked at the DEAD END sign declaring the water's edge, then turned into a driveway and parked. The burly guy got out. There was a woman standing there, watching him.
"My daughter collects autographs," said Charlie Hand, 52, a prison guard from Upstate New York. "She's got Walter Cronkite, Angie Dickenson, Jimmy Carter, Teresa Brewer. So she's watching TV, and sees these Miller Lite commercials, and says, 'Daddy, I've got to have Mickey Spillane.' "
"Sent him on an errand," said the woman, who was named Jane, which rhymes with Spillane, who is her husband.
"You sent Mickey on an errand?" asked the redhead. She eyed her car. Very nervous. "Uh, we've got his parking place. Does he lose his temper easily?"
It is the common fear of strangers: That the real-life Spillane, the man behind America's hottest avenging private eye, might be as rough and tumble and unforgiving as Mike Hammer. No telling how he would take a redhead in His Spot.
"He's got a .45," said Jane with a wink as a white Ford pickup wheeled up.
Out climbed a stocky fireplug of a man with a menacing gray crewcut and a bullneck. He wore khaki shorts, a T-shirt and topsiders, strings unlaced.
But Spillane, with mirth lines etched about pale blue eyes, never seeks revenge against invaders, even when they sneak up to peek in the windows of his rambling white frame house at 7 a.m., eliciting shrieks from Jane, in her nightgown, or pound on the door after midnight.
In fact, a cooler of ice-cold beer hunkers down behind the bar. "Have one," Spillane said to one and all, a Brooklyn drawl still grating after 30 years down South.
"I'll take a Budweiser," joked Charlie.
Sorry, pal, it's Miller time, the only brand Spillane endorses on TV and sips all day long here on the hot South Carolina coast. The host popped a non-Lite and scribbled his autograph. He was used to it. On one "slow" week last summer he counted 1,122 visitors.
"I have no fans," he said, beer in hand. "You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends."
At 66, Spillane is a legend of the blood-soaked whodunit, a pioneer of tough guy ethics and New Age vengeance who has written 24 bullet-riddled crime novels in all (11 of them Hammers) and two children's books: 180 million books in worldwide sales by his count. Mike Hammer was blasting bad guys before Dirty Harry was old enough to play with squirt guns.
"I'm the most translated writer in the world, behind Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorki and Jules Verne," he says, parading past shelves of Spillane in Russian, French and Arabic. "And they're all dead."
Television is fueling the latest Spillane renaissance. Hammer first hit TV in the late '50s. In the '60s, Spillane, in trench coat and porkpie hat, played Hammer in a movie of "The Girl Hunters." The '70s were too mellow, but now he's back with a vengeance. Enough viewers tuned in to Stacy Keach as Mike Hammer last year that CBS has 13 new episodes scheduled for the fall season.
And, of course, the public still snaps up the paperbacks, despite the fact Spillane hasn't written a new Hammer for a decade. But one is in the works, for which he turned down $1.5 million. This time, Hammer will be older and wiser, says Spillane, but never too old to love and fight.
"I only write when I need the money," he says. "I hate to work. If I got enough money, I don't write. What's the sense of making it if you can't spend it?"
Spillane stunned critics in 1947 with "I, The Jury," a lurid psychodrama of Getting Even starring cops, hookers and a detective named Hammer who avenged a pal's murder by shooting the killer -- a beautiful woman -- point blank in the belly.
The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte staggered back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her naked belly where the bullet went in. A thin trickle of blood welled out . . . "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.
It took nine days to write. He was 28 and looking to bust out of Brooklyn, an ex-comic book writer back from a war. Friends laughed that it would never sell. Several publishers passed before Dutton bought it for $1,000, a fortune back then. Spillane, an ex-World War II flight instructor, sensed the new appetites.
Slam-bam tales and mega-sales: 8 million copies of "I, The Jury" have sold to date and two movies have been made of it. "My Gun Is Quick" came out next, one of the seven books he wrote between 1947 and 1952. As 25-cent paperbacks, they leaped off the shelves.
There was no one like Hammer. Sam Spade was tame. Never before had a private eye spilled blood on such a vast scale. He shot quick, punched hard, fought off beautiful women and always got the bad guys. Mobsters got it. Commies got it. And if a woman deserved it, well, she got it, too.
"The books are very moral in their own way," says novelist Max Collins, a mystery writer and Hammerophile who has edited a book of Spillane short stories. "The whole Mike Hammer ethic hinges on a very strict Old Testament moral code."
Critics weren't so kind. They accused Spillane of hating women, of sadism, of dispatching a generation of youth to delinquency via Hammerism. "The Joe McCarthy of literature," they scoffed.
"They always asked, 'Why did he shoot her in the belly?' " Spillane laughs now while he allows yellow jackets to sip beer from his hand. "And I always said, 'Because he missed. He meant to shoot her in the head.' "
One TV critic assailed Spillane and public taste after seven of Spillane's books occupied the top 10 paperback best-seller list at one time.
Said Spillane: "Shut up, or I'll write three more." And he was fond of saying, "If Thomas Wolfe sold, I'd write like Thomas Wolfe."
In 1952, Harper's magazine sniffed at the Spillane oeuvre as "Light, entertaining reading from which literate society seems to have withdrawn all sense of judgment."
The magazine detailed the destinies of Mike Hammer's girls.
"Of seven with whom he has a casual but intimate encounter, six are murdered (three shootings, one strangulation, one slit throat). Of the three he takes a deeper interest in, he himself shoots two, both in the abdomen, one having turned out to be a man, and the third has her head shot off accidentally by a child just as she is about to kill Mr. Hammer . . .
"In the only book in which he treats his secretary at all tenderly, she is kidnapped by communists, stripped, hung up by her wrists and beaten with a knotted rope . . . That leaves only one woman whose attractiveness to Mr. Hammer does not cause violence to take place. Perhaps the reader is intended to understand that she has already achieved violence in her own fashion, as she is the only genuine nymphomaniac in the lot."
"I was a little afraid of him at first," confesses his 37-year-old bride of 11 months, Spillane's third wife. She is perky, blond and petite, standing just over five feet, an ex-Miss Watermelon and first runner-up Miss South Carolina (1965) behind winner Nancy Moore, Sen. Strom Thurmond's wife.
She grew up down the street. Having once read two Hammers she had at first associated Spillane with stomped goons and bruised ladies. They met after she moved back to the inlet last year, a displaced "creek girl" come home again with two teen-age daughters and a Connecticut divorce.
Soothed Spillane, "Mike Hammer never hits a woman, he punches her in the mouth with his lips and always loses the fight."
They began dating -- that is, trips to the grocery, hardware store and post office. And he drew the line: only necking before the Big Day. He'd just severed an 18-year marriage to aspiring Hollywood starlet Sherri Malinou, 24 years his junior, perhaps best-known for posing nude on the cover of "The Erection Set" (1972). She declared the inlet a "dump," preferring life on The Coast while Mickey wrote here. Soon, Jane learned The Truth about Hammer's creator:
"He's a pussycat. He's a family man. He likes to stay home. He runs the kids everywhere. He's a lot different than people think."
Sure enough, a tiny Yorkshire terrier, Bandit, goes untrained because Spillane doesn't have the heart for discipline. He owns guns but hates hunting. He loves deep-sea fishing, but shuns big game fish as trophies, keeping only what he can eat. He avoids voting booths, brawls and bars. A Jehovah's Witness, Spillane is far more complex than his carefully cultivated tough-guy image. Father of four grown children (none writes), he is rather gentle. Curses tend toward "golly." He has opted for bare feet and a modest two-story frame house on the Intracoastal Waterway. He pays cash and shuns "things," Jane's new jacuzzi with gold fixtures excepted.
"Don't feel sorry for me," he says. "I live pretty good."
His one toy sits in the carport: a sleek white 1956 Jaguar, a gift from John Wayne after they filmed "Ring of Fear." Between fast rewrites that saved the movie, The Duke watched him eye the sports car in a showroom window. One day, Spillane found it sitting in his driveway, a red ribbon attached, and a note that read, "Thanks, Duke."
A new pickup is on order. Who wants a car to show off? Certainly not Spillane. "You don't go flounder fishing out of a yacht," he says. "All you need is a rowboat."
He writes beneath a bulletin board that bears his bad reviews. Quips mask a fierce pride in his craft. He says critics don't hurt him as long as they "don't rip up my dollar bills."
He still wonders, "Why did all these giants critics descend on me and my little stories? I wasn't doing anything of national import. All I was trying to do was entertain the public and make a buck. If there was no money in writing, I wouldn't write. I'm a commercial writer, not an 'author.' Margaret Mitchell was an author. She wrote one book."
Eleven manual Smith Coronas dot the house. No fancy word processors for Spillane. "You can't plug them into the sand." He types with two fingers, always writing the endings first.
"Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle," he says. "They read it to get to the end. If it's a letdown, they won't buy any more. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book."
Don't get the wrong idea. There's plenty of Mike in Mickey. He vetoed a script for his TV series that portrayed Hammer working with the Russians. "I don't want the commies put in a position to look good," he says.
And no one ever accused him of being a feminist. On his last trip to Hollywood, "I was on a talk show with this ugly woman. What was her name, Jane?"
"I don't know, but someone sure hit her with an ugly stick."
"Betty Friedan," he says. "That's who it was. So they asked me, 'Are you a chauvinist?' Damn right I am. There was some guy on the show, too, talking about the superiority of women. They agreed. Ridiculous statements."
"What's it like to be married to this domineering, macho man?" Jane was asked at a West Coast press conference.
"Terrific," she shot back. "I like being a woman. I like a man running the show."
Now, standing behind the outdoor bar as workmen hammer away on a new bedroom, kitchen and deck, Spillane sweeps her into his arms. "She's beautiful. A good cook. Cuddly. Lovely rear end. Gorgeous legs." He arches a brow. "All kind of good things."
He grew up poor in Elizabeth, N.J., the only child of an Irish bartender and a highly educated Scotswoman. A favorite uncle, Billy Turk, was a New York Police Department chief inspector, whose experiences sparked a taste for adventure. Spillane graduated from high school in Brooklyn, wrote for Marvel comics (dialogue for Captain America and Human Torch, filler short stories) and went off to war. He taught flying stateside, he says, hinting at secret missions he won't reveal.
Back home, comic sales slumped after the war, and he turned his idea for a strip based on a detective named Mike Danger into "I, The Jury," and Hammer was born.
"Kiss Me Deadly" came out in 1952, and then, after reading a creationist tract he felt disproved Darwin, he became a Jehovah's Witness; Mike Hammer took a 10-year hike. Spillane moved south to escape blizzards and big cities, settling here after a friendly reception on a Florida sidetrip, a tranquil landscape where egrets and ospreys glide above marsh grass and men cast shrimp nets from rowboats.
He kept writing -- for men's magazines like Saga and Cavalier. He wrote a screenplay. He played Hammer in a movie, starlet clinches and all. Off screen, he wore Hammer's trench coat, always the savvy promoter.
"Mike Hammer is a state of mind," he says.
He learned to skin dive, dove for buried treasure in the Florida Keys, rode with moonshiners and revenue agents in Appalachia, raced stock cars, traveled with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, got shot out of a cannon. His typewriter rode shotgun, and if he got an idea, well, he'd just pull over and start pounding. Did he pack a gun on special assignments undercover with police, as rumors suggest, trading shots with bad guys? He winks, but won't confirm.
"But you never know," says Max Collins. "He's a great storyteller, best known among his friends for telling you something so outrageous, you write it off as another one of Mickey's stories, only to find out it's true."
One friend, Steve Schmidt, 68, once spied a three-foot alligator when they were fishing on the Santee Cooper River here. "You want it?" asked Spillane, parking his beer and diving overboard to give chase. It got away, but the legend grew.
In 1962 came "The Girl Hunters," his first Hammer in a decade, followed by a flurry of books. Mike Hammer was still champion of the underdog, a modern day white knight in an ugly, shabby world, viewing himself as a necessary evil to fight evil, but he began to wrestle with his conscience, wondering if he might one day go to hell.
Then, in 1970, the Hammers halted again, his most recent crime book being "The Last Cop Out" in 1973. For the last 12 years, he has played hired gun for Miller Brewing, shaking small-town hands from Butte, Mont., to Ames, Iowa, and touting Lite beer, Hammer's brand when he's not sipping Canadian Club. One thing is certain: Cognac will never touch the grizzled detective's lips "because I can't spell 'cognac,' " says Spillane.
"Hemingway hated my guts," says Spillane, grinning as he wheels the pickup (his "Carolina Cadillac") about the idyllic inlet one recent morning, stopping to watch fishing boats cast off, one of them crewed by a rugged first mate named Ward, 34, his oldest son.
The rivalry with Hemingway began in the '50s, as Spillane tells it, when Spillane visited a restaurant in the Florida Keys and saw Hemingway's photograph on the wall. A waitress recognized Spillane, asked for his photograph and mounted it alongside.
But the restaurant was a Hemingway pit stop, on his way to and from Cuba.
"Take his down or mine down!" Hemingway exploded when he saw it. An irate waitress yanked Hemingway from the wall. He never came back.
"Hemingway? What did he do that made him so big?" asks Spillane. "He wrote some good stuff, but what was so big about it? He never sold that many." The word "sold" goes on like a stretch limousine: "soooooooooooold."
Spillane prefers Clive Cussler. "I loved 'Raise the Titanic.' " He likes John D. MacDonald, too. Hammett is okay, Chandler's early books were "great." But a lot of those considered "classic" writers are nothings, he says. "If the public likes you, you're good. Shakespeare was a common, down-to-earth writer in his day."
F. Scott Fitzgerald? Spillane looks seasick. "What did he write? Small things. What was so great about his stuff. You ever read 'em?"
"You like him?"
"His stuff was 'ehh.' How old was he when he died? He never hit 50. I'm 66 . . . If you're a singer, you lose your voice. A baseball player loses his arm. A writer gets more knowledge, and if he's good, the older he gets, the better he writes. They can't kill me. I still got potential."