Mickey Spillane: This Time It’s Personal

By Max Allan Collins

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece originally appeared, in a slightly different form, as the introduction to 2001 New American Library edition of The Mike Hammer Collection, which collected I, the Jury, My Gun Is Quick and Vengeance Is Mine. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, Max Allan Collins, who was not only one of the late, great Spillane’s staunchest defenders but also, it turns out, one of his best friends.

If you have never read a Mike Hammer novel before, how I envy you.

You are about to take the definitive wild ride of American mystery fiction, and will meet the most famous tough private eye of them all: Mike Hammer not in a watered down movie or TV show rendition, but via the gritty, mind boggling real thing: the unmistakable, electrifying prose of Mickey Spillane.

And if you have read these novels before, perhaps a long, long time ago–you may be surprised to discover that Spillane isn’t just the remarkable entertainer you remember, but a distinctive literary stylist… if not an “author” (a word he despises, always reminding us that he is a “writer,” and proud to be one), that his work nonetheless belongs on the same short shelf as that of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

I’ll give you the literary lowdown a few pages from now and make the “case” for Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer as more than a mere entertainer and the pop culture phenomenon he created.

First, though, I want to get personal and that’s fitting, because at the core of Spillane’s success is the personal nature of his storytelling. Mike Hammer is always motivated, not by a client who walks in the door, but the murder of a friend. He is a detective, yes, and a much better one than he is ever given credit for; but he is, first and last, an avenger.

Something personal is at stake at the heart of every Spillane novel, particularly the Mike Hammers. And Hammer himself is (as Spillane has frequently said) “a state of mind;” with only the barest references to physical description–Hammer is “big,” he’s “ugly”–Spillane presents a character so vivid, whose voice is so readily identifiable, that for five decades filmmakers have been frustrated to recreate this famous character
satisfactorily on the screen. It’s I, the Jury, after all emphasis on the “I.” With Hammer’s idiosyncratic yet natural voice, Spillane merges his hero’s mind with the reader’s in a manner that makes a Hammer yarn both immediate and intimate. And like the early Beatles, Spillane knew that using first person pronouns in his titles would emphasize the personal nature of his hero’s quest.

I started reading Mickey’s Mike Hammer novels when I was thirteen–and that’s the age I revert to whenever I read a Spillane novel. How vividly I recall encountering the clerk behind the counter of some drugstore in some town along a family vacation route, circa 1960, when I wanted to buy the Mike Hammer paperback One Lonely Night.

“Are you old enough to be reading this?” the clerk asked, eyeing the naked, trussed up dame on the cover.

“I’m sixteen,” I lied.

And the guy shrugged and took my thirty five cents. That, and my sanity, was all it cost me to become a Mike Hammer fan for life.

I had already read Hammett and Chandler, and Spillane seemed to me then their peer. I still feel that way today–and it still gets me into trouble. For over four decades now, I have found myself in the unlikely position of being perhaps the chief defender of one of the most popular writers of all time. Because of my boldly expressed high opinion of Mickey Spillane, I have been involved in screaming matches; I have nearly been in several fistfights; and I have been dissed and dismissed because of the taint of Spillane on my own work. As beloved as Spillane is–and no other mystery writer has touched readers in so deeply personal a manner–so in some quarters is he roundly despised.

And yet Mickey Spillane–born in Brooklyn on March 9, 1918–is undeniably one of the most influential writers of twentieth-century. mystery fiction. And after fifty years of critical pummeling, he is now… finally… widely acknowledged as the master of the post-World War 11 hard-boiled private eye novel.

The 1948 Signet paperback reprint of his 1947 E.P. Dutton hardcover, I, the Jury, sold in the millions, as did the six tough mysteries (all but one a Hammer) that soon followed. A veteran of World War II, Spillane connected with other returning GIs by providing entertainment that in its violence and carnality reflected a generation’s loss of innocence; but Spillane was also a veteran of comic book writing, and he delivered these tales in a visceral, visually hard-hitting, direct manner.

Spillane’s impact on the mass market paperback industry was immediate and long lasting, his success soon imitated by countless authors and publishers. Gold Medal Books, America’s pioneer “paperback original” house, was specifically formed to tap into the Spillane market. The new level of violence and sex found in Spillane’s fiction influenced not only other mystery writers, but virtually every branch of popular storytelling. His detective Mike Hammer provided the template for James Bond, Dirty Harry, Billy Jack, Rambo, John Shaft, and countless other fictional tough guys.

This omnibus collects the first three Mike Hammer novels novels that turned publishing on its ear.

So perhaps it would surprise you to know that the most recent Spillane novel, Black Alley (1996), is only the thirteenth Mike Hammer book thus far. The Hammers represent a little less than half of Spillane’s novelistic output — hardly a huge body of work and yet Spillane’s sales exceed 130 million copies, leading to the popular misconception that he is a prolific writer in the vein of Erle Stanley Gardner or Stephen King. An international sensation, Spillane was at one time the fifth most translated author in the world.

Spillane’s success made him–and Mike Hammer–a media star. There was a Mike Hammer radio show at the end of that medium’s “golden age;” a daily comic strip (ending abruptly following criticism of a panel depicting a man torturing a captive woman); gritty movies (significantly, director Robert Aldrich’s influential 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly and the 1963 The Girl Hunters, in which Spillane starred as his famous hero both now available on home video in glorious widescreen); and popular TV series in the 1950s and 1980 90s, starring Darren McGavin and Stacy Keach, respectively.

Along the way Spillane quit writing about Hammer, twice–in 1953, after his surprising conversion to the conservative Jehovah’s Witnesses sect; and again in 1970, out of apparent boredom. Occasional movie star Spillane has become an immediately recognizable American pop-culture personality, due largely to his successful series of commercials for Miller Lite in the 1970s and 80s, in which he spoofed Hammer’s tough, womanizing persona.

Always an innovative storyteller and stylist, Spillane controls the reader by the commanding presence of his central characters, via an intense yet seemingly effortless use of first person narration. From the moment his first novel hit the paperback stands, Spillane touched the psyche and libido of the reading public and influenced the shape of adventure and mystery fiction. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, for example, did not sleep with a woman (on the printed page, at least) until Hammer had blazed that sexual trail.

As Spillane scholar James Traylor has noted, the Hammer novels revealed the darkness underneath that 1950s Norman Rockwell surface, particularly the darkness inherent in the archetypal frontier hero, of which Hammer was a modern urban extension. Mike Hammer was perhaps the first widely popular antihero: a good guy who used the methods of the bad guy in pursuit of frontier justice, a vigilante who spared the courts the trouble of a trial by executing the villain himself

Hammer remains the most misunderstood of American “tough guy” detectives. From his first novel, Spillane has been a social historian, painting an America whose postwar world did not live up to expectations; whose returning war heroes (Audie Murphy comes to mind) were passionate, righteous, yet flawed, even disturbed. Spillane’s novels have always concerned themselves with political corruption, lust for money, and such social evils as drugs and prostitution. Spillane’s vision is of a postmodern America, after World War 11 had destroyed her innocence, when its population woke up screaming from the American dream.

It has been my privilege — getting personal, once again — not only to meet Mickey, but to get to know him. Because of my reputation as his defender, I was asked at a mystery conference in 1981 to be the liaison between guest Spillane and the staff. We spent hours talking and have since spent time at each other’s homes, collaborated on several projects, and — this is still astonishing to me — are good friends. One of the most amazing things in my life — and there are any number of those — is receiving the occasional social phone call from Mickey Spillane.

The creator of Mike Hammer is my son Nathan’s godfather, and is as kind and gentle a man as Mike Hammer is mean and rough; but he is, I promise you, every bit as tough as his creation. I would never cross him and yet I know, if anyone ever did me wrong, Mickey would be there to put things right.

These three novels speak for themselves, but I will say a few words about each.

I, the Jury is perhaps the most traditional hard-boiled mystery of Spillane’s career, lean and swift, with the opening sequence — in which Hammer swears vengeance — and the classic shocking closing — in which Hammer takes vengeance — the most typically Spillane aspects. But from the very start Mickey was writing fight scenes of uncompromising brutality — no one writes action sequences better — and the alluring presence of beautiful willing women keeps the novel steamy, even after all these years.

The opening of My Gun Is Quick (1950) is a rare passage that Spillane — who rarely discusses his craft — singles out as a favorite … his “once upon a time” invitation to the reader to sit down and “vicariously” enjoy an extraordinary tale. What follows — in addition to action and sensual romance — reveals Spillane’s working class instincts, his identification with society’s dregs, where a prostitute represents nobility, while the upper class stands for … something else.

Vengeance Is Mine! (1950) reveals Mickey at his fast-paced best, with a tricky mystery, action, sex, and perhaps the best “socko” finish of any Spillane novel. Mickey has hit his stride here, as Mike Hammer and his beloved secretary, Velda, race through a fever-dream Manhattan, and this book represents — if there is any such animal — a “typical” Spillane novel. Az Frank Sinatra once said, after listening to the playback of one of his own tunes, “If you don’t like that, you don’t like ice cream.” Again, Spillane’s pride in his craft comes through when he singles out this novel .as a personal favorite because he had managed to save the surprise ending until the very last word.

For those of you meeting Mike Hammer for the first time, if any of these surprise endings do not surprise you, it’s only because so many other writers (and moviemakers) have — in the intervening years — stolen them . Rarely has it been noted that Mickey’s endings — with Hammer’s elaborate confrontation scenes with villains, in which every twist and of the twisty, turny plot is revealed and explained — connect the writer with the more complicated solutions of nonhard-boiled practitioners in the Agatha Christie mode. The Spillane surprise ending is a combination of stunning revelations followed by Mike Hammer’s personally rendered justice upon the villain … always exciting, never pretty.

Yet, after all the talk is over — whether about sex or violence or more literary matters — what these books are about is friendship, about loyalty in a world where disloyalty is common currency.

Mike Hammer is about to enter the room where his best friend — a who gave an arm in combat to save him — has been murdered. The world’s toughest private eye will shake the rain off his hat, and the ride will begin.

Hold on.

Max Allan Collins

* * * * *

Max Allan Coffins is the author of the Shamus Award-winning Nate Heller historical detective series, the Road to Perdition graphic novel, from which the successful film was adapted and well over a hundred books. Like Spillane, Collins has written comics, notably the comic strip Dick Tracy, the Batman comic book and his own Ms. Tree series, which he co-created with artist Terry Beatty. An independent filmmaker in his native Iowa, Collins wrote and directed the cult favorite thrillers Mommy (1995) and Mommy’s Day (1997), both of which featured Mickey Spillane in rare acting roles. Collins is also the writer/director of the award-winning documentary Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane (1 999) and (with James L. Traylor) wrote the Edgar-nominated One Lonely Knight: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1984).

3 thoughts on “Mickey Spillane: This Time It’s Personal

  1. Kevin;

    Thanks for posting Max Allan Collins’ introduction to the Mickey Spillane omnibus. It has motivated me to re-read the three novels, which I originally read decades ago. It has been a while since I have read any of the Hammer novels so I look forward to spending some quality time with Mike. Incidentally, as much as I like Darren McGavin and Stacy Keach as Hammer, I will probably think of Ralph Meeker when I again read the novels.

    1. Me, I always think–although they were never cast, they shoulda been–of Robert Mitchum or Robert DeNiro. I always imagine Hammer as a big brute plowing his way through the rain soaked streets of New York.

  2. This is a very interesting article. I was thirteen years old when I first started reading the Mike Hammer novels. I started with The Hardy Boys then made the huge leap to Mike Hammer. After that, it was on to the James Bond novels and the Travis McGee novels. Those books shaped my life. I went on to become an intelligence officer, and I have been a fully licensed private investigator for the past thirty years. I have a female friend whose father “ran around” with Mr. Spillane in South Carolina. She has some interesting stories. Thank you for keeping the Mickey Spillane legacy alive and relevant. I am reading The Big Bang now.

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