A Begrudging Tribute to Mickey Spillane
The first time I saw Mickey Spillane’s name in print I was thirteen years old. My father had brought home a paperback copy of The Erection Set. The cover featured a photograph of a beautiful blonde, naked, with one long leg extended straight up, toes tickling the black block letters of the author’s name. She had a revolver in her left hand and stared directly out from the front of the glossy pulp with an expression that conveyed both lust and defiance. A small black banner covered her breasts. Across it was written: Over 1,500,000 Copies in Print. Mickey Spillane had gotten my attention.
I read that book, surreptitiously, when my father finished it, and followed it with I, the Jury, Spillane’s first novel, and the book that introduced the world to his most enduring character, Mike Hammer. They were, and in many ways remain, a wonderfully guilty pleasure. Sex and violence, poetically foul language, and a staggering level of alcohol consumption; what’s not to love? I’d hit the adolescent male literary lotto. And based on Spillane’s sales figures – around 130,000,000 books and counting – there is no shortage of adolescent male id out there.
It should come as no surprise, given his aggressive entrepreneurial bent and fuck-em-if-they-can’t-take-a-joke attitude toward critics, that Mickey was a Brooklyn boy. He was born in Canarsie, and though his father moved the family to Elizabeth, New Jersey when Spillane was a young kid, he attended Erasmus Hall high school in Flatbush, graduating in 1935.
He enlisted in the Army the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and when he returned to civilian life he began writing for series comic books, including Batman and Captain America. He bought a small piece of land just north of the city and, needing a quick thousand dollars to build a house, wrote his first novel in nine days on a manual typewriter while living in a tent pitched on the barren property.
Spillane appeared on America’s literary radar as the planets aligned to create the publishing world’s perfect storm. World War II veterans were returning home shell-shocked and jaded, unwilling to consume the milquetoast literature of optimism and civility still being marketed. Writers like Norman Mailer and James Jones were pushing the literary envelope with brutally honest depictions of the experience of war, but their emphasis was still on literature, as opposed to the escapist entertainment of the masses. The paperback explosion of the fifties and rising Cold War paranoia completed the equation of demand. All that remained was for someone to give the people what they wanted. Enter Mickey Spillane. He was HBO for fiction in a world of network programming. His plots were impossibly reliant on coincidence, his characters cartoons, the violence and misogyny so over the top as to be silly. It was fun, by god, and packaged with the kind of sleazy and sensational covers that caused men who had charged machine gun nests to hide them in their houses because they were afraid of their wives finding them.
Over the next four decades Spillane would write twelve more Mike Hammer mysteries, and another dozen outside the Hammer universe, some featuring a tough guy named Kelly, and some with “secret agent” Tiger Mann. Several were stand-alone adventures. Although not every title rivaled the sales of the early Hammer series, all were enormous commercial successes. In fact, Mickey was the best-selling fiction writer of the twentieth century. In later years he wrote two children’s books, one of which won a prize from the Junior Literary Guild in 1979.
Of all Spillane’s creations, easily the most impressive was Mickey Spillane. He flew fighter planes, was shot out of a cannon as a circus performer, and starred as Mike Hammer in the film adaptation of one of his books, The Girl Hunters, in 1963. The nude blonde who adorned the covers of several of his early ’70s releases was his second wife, Sherri Malinou.
When I heard that he died, my first thought was to wonder how he would want to be remembered. He was famous for his derision of literary critics, contending that he did not write for them, but for the working man. He referred to himself as a writer, not an author, making the distinction that a writer is someone whose work sells. “This is an income generating job,” he said in a 2001 interview. “Fame was never anything to me unless it afforded me a good livelihood.” So was that the way he perceived himself and his work? Did he detach from the creative process entirely and look upon the novels he wrote as though they were cars cranked out on the assembly line? Doubtful. He also placed himself in somewhat lofty company. “If the public likes you, you’re good,” he said. “Shakespeare was a common, down-to-earth writer in his day.”
As I mentally scroll through the pantheon of classic hardboiled writers and assess their fates, it occurs to me that Spillane has certainly done all right for himself. And perhaps, for the son of a Canarsie bartender who wrote a novel to pay for a house, that’s enough. But as his successes mounted Spillane achieved a reverent form of tribute, one unique to noir fans. After all, I would rather be Phillip Marlowe than Raymond Chandler. I would rather be Nick Charles than Dashiell Hammett. But I would much rather be Mickey Spillane than Mike Hammer. To have lived a life that eclipses your fictional hero’s just might be the greatest legacy of all.
TIM MCLOUGHLIN is the editor of the Brooklyn Noir anthology series.