CRIME NOVELIST IMPACTED NOT JUST FICTION, BUT AMERICAN POP CULTURE
By Max Allan Collins
In July 2006, the last major mystery writer of the 20th century left the building. Only a handful of writers in the genre – Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler among them – achieved superstar status.
Mickey Spillane’s position, however, is unique – reviled by many mainstream critics, despised and envied by a number of his contemporaries in the very field he’d revitalized, the creator of Mike Hammer had an impact not just on mystery and suspense fiction but popular culture in general.
BOOKS SIGNATURE® AUCTION 6174
Featuring the Mickey Spillane Collection
March 8-9, 2017
Live: New York
Editor’s note: The Mickey Spillane Collection, representing approximately 150 lots, includes typewriters, typescripts, books, writing chair, photographs, militaria and Hollywood memorabilia and clothing.
The success of the reprint editions of his startlingly violent and sexy novels jump-started the paperback original, and his redefinition of the action hero as a tough guy who mercilessly executed villains and who slept with beautiful, willing women remains influential to this day (Sin City is Frank Miller’s homage).
When Spillane published I, the Jury in 1947, he introduced in Mike Hammer the most famous of all fictional private eyes. Hammer swears vengeance over the corpse of an army buddy who lost an arm in the Pacific saving the detective’s life. No matter who the villain turns out to be, Hammer will not just find him, but execute him – even if it’s a her.
This was something entirely new in mystery fiction, and Spillane quickly became the most popular – and controversial – mystery writer of the mid-20th century. In addition to creating an eye-for-an-eye hero, the writer brought a new level of sex and violence to the genre. He was called a fascist by left-leaning critics and a libertine by right-leaning ones. In between were millions of readers who turned Spillane’s first six Hammer novels into the bestselling private eye novels of all time.
The controversial Hammer has been the subject of a radio show, comic strip and several television series, starring Darren McGavin in the 1950s and Stacy Keach in the ’80s and ’90s. Numerous gritty movies have been made from Spillane novels, notably director Robert Aldrich’s seminal film noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
As success raged around him, Spillane proved himself a showman and a marketing genius; he became as famous as his creation, appearing on book jackets with gun in hand and fedora on head. His image became synonymous with Hammer’s, more so even than any of the actors who portrayed the private eye, including McGavin and Keach.
For 18 years, well past the peak of his publishing success, Spillane appeared as himself/Hammer in the wildly successful Miller Lite commercials, alongside his “Doll” (Lee Meredith of Producers fame) and overshadowing countless former pro athletes.
Alone among mystery writers, he appeared as his own famous detective in the 1963 film The Girl Hunters. Critics at the time viewed his performance as Hammer favorably, and today many viewers of the quirky, made-in-England film still do. Virtually an amateur, Spillane is in nearly every frame, his natural charisma and wry humor holding him in good stead next to the professional likes of Lloyd Nolan (Michael Shayne of the ’40s Fox movie series) and Shirley Eaton (“golden girl” of Goldfinger).
Of course, The Girl Hunters wasn’t Spillane’s first feature film – it wasn’t even his first leading role in one. In 1954, John Wayne hired Spillane to star with Pat O’Brien and lion-tamer Clyde Beatty in Ring of Fear, a film he co-scripted without credit, receiving a white Jaguar as a gift from producer Wayne.
Revenge was a constant theme in Mike Hammer’s world – Vengeance Is Mine! among his titles – with the detective rarely taking a paying client. Getting even was the motivation for this detective.
I was lucky enough to know Mickey Spillane and work with him, and was asked by him shortly before his death to complete a number of unfinished Hammer novels – manuscripts covering the entire span of the writer’s career. Lady, Go Die! (2012) completes a 1947 manuscript and is a sequel to I, the Jury, while King of the Weeds (2014) was envisioned by Spillane as the last Hammer novel.
Mike Hammer paved the way for James Bond – Casino Royale has its revenge aspect – and every tough action P.I., cop, lone avenger and government agent who followed, from Shaft to Billy Jack, from Dirty Harry to Jack Bauer. The latest Hammer-style heroes include an unlikely one – the vengeance-driven young woman of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy – as well as a more obvious descendent, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.
But as the writer’s 100th birthday approaches, it seems ever more obvious: There is only one Mike Hammer.
And one Mickey Spillane.
MAX ALLAN COLLINS is a mystery writer whose credits include the graphic novel Road to Perdition and the Dick Tracy comic strip.