“Mickey Spillane at 100” (by Max Allan Collins)

Thirteen years ago, when the centenary of Ellery Queen was celebrated with a symposium and exhibition at Columbia University, we were amazed at the outpouring of love and interest from fans and readers, since there had not been a new Ellery Queen novel in more than thirty years. This year the mystery world commemorates the centenary of the man author Max Allan Collins calls “the last major mystery writer of the twentieth century,” Mickey Spillane. Spillane’s many fans have not had to go without new fiction from their icon in the years since his death in the way that Ellery Queen fans have, however, and that’s thanks to Max Allan Collins, who has completed many unfinished Spillane manuscripts, including two that were held for this special centenary year. In addition to the year’s important book releases, which Max discusses in this post, Titan Comics has marked the occasion by releasing a new comics series starring P.I. Mike Hammer, Spillane’s most famous—and influential—creation. Mickey Spillane was never published in EQMM during his lifetime, but in the years since Max Allan Collins began to complete his many unfinished works, EQMM has had the pleasure of publishing him (with cowriter Max Allan Collins) twice, once about a decade ago, and now, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, in our current issue, September/October 2018. Max Allan Collins is also known to EQMM readers for his solo works for the magazine. He is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, a Shamus Award winner, an author whose work has inspired productions for both the big and small screens, and, currently, the coauthor with his wife Barbara Collins of the Trash ’n’ Treasures cozy mystery series. I’d like to urge all readers to take the occasional of the Spillane centenary to delve into the new Spillane fiction coming out this year.—Janet Hutchings

In July of 2006, the last major mystery writer of the twentieth century left the building. Only a handful of writers in the genre—Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, among them—achieved such superstar status.

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 revitalized, the creator of Mike Hammer had an impact not just on mystery and suspense fiction but popular culture in general.

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 (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.

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.

This was something entirely new in mystery fiction, and Spillane quickly became the most popular—and controversial—mystery writer of the mid twentieth 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 eighties and nineties. 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, Mickey 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 eighteen 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 Girl Hunters (1963). 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 beside the professional likes of Lloyd Nolan (Michael Shayne of the 1940s Fox movie series) and Shirley Eaton (“golden girl” of Goldfinger).

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 coscripted without credit, receiving a white Jaguar as a gift from producer Wayne.

Mike Hammer paved the way for James Bond 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.

In the final week of his life, Mike Hammer’s creator said to his wife Jane, “When I’m gone, there’ll be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max. He’ll know what to do.”

Mickey had already called me, a week before, asking me to finish the Mike Hammer novel, The Goliath Bone, if he was unable to.

I had been Mickey’s fan since the early sixties, when as an adolescent I’d discovered his fever-dream prose. I was led there by the Darren McGavin TV series (“Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer,” 1958-1960). The late fifties and early sixties saw a wave of private eye TV shows, with the Hammer imitation “Peter Gunn” leading the pack, its creator Blake Edwards having written and directed a failed “Hammer” pilot film.

I became a fanatic about Spillane, whose noir poetry mingled with a level of sex and violence unavailable in other mysteries of the day, exploding my thirteen-year-old skull into fragments as if by Hammer’s .45 automatic. Within a year I was writing Spillane-style stories and sending them (unsuccessfully) in the mail to publishers, none of whom seemed to be looking for teenaged mystery writers.

Because I’d written articles defending and praising Spillane, I was invited to be the liaison between him and the 1981 Bouchercon (the major mystery fan convention, named for New York Times critic Anthony Boucher, who was among the first wave of Spillane’s attackers). Held in Milwaukee, the con was tying into that city’s beer persona by having Spillane, then starring in the very clever TV commercials for Miller Lite, as a guest of honor.

I had written Mickey perhaps one hundred fan letters, but the only one he answered was in 1973, when I sent him my first published novel (Bait Money), and he welcomed me to the professional community of writers. So when I was introduced to Mickey, he said, “Oh, I know Max! We’ve been corresponding for years.” And I said, “That’s right, Mickey—one hundred letters from me, one letter from you.”

And we became fast friends.

This led to me visiting him, from time to time, in his Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, home. I was there when he met Jane Rogers, who would become his wife (well, he’d first known her when she was a little kid before she moved away). He accepted when I asked him to be my son Nathan’s godfather. We collaborated on numerous projects together, including anthologies, an early 1990s comic book series (MIKE DANGER, a science-fiction private eye), and a biographical documentary (Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, 1999, featured on the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray of the great noir, Kiss Me Deadly).

On my visits to South Carolina, we would talk writing. He had many friends in that part of the world, but no writer friends. He liked to talk shop. Deep into the night, he would share with me his plans for various Mike Hammer novels, often acting out the wild endings that were his trademark. On one visit, he sent two 100-page-plus unfinished Hammer manuscripts home with me for safekeeping, as if prescient about Hurricane Hugo, which would soon destroy his home.

Why Mickey left behind so many unfinished works—particularly since his prose was so valuable commercially—cannot be answered simply. Part of it had to do with his religious conversion to the conservative Jehovah’s Witnesses, who at least twice disenfranchised him due to the level of sex and violence in his work. In other words, Mickey Spillane’s church told him to quit writing like Mickey Spillane. They did not, however, ask him to quit tithing.

But there were other factors. Mickey often had more than one novel going—he would get “stuck” on one, and turn to another. Also, he loved doing beginnings and endings—and no one in the genre was ever better at either—but sometimes got bored in the middle. His favorite form was the 20,000-word novelette, and he spent almost a decade at the height of his fame writing them for low-end men’s magazines that paid him a pittance. His fertile imagination sometimes worked against him—he’d get a new idea, and set aside a manuscript to pursue it.

On my visits to his Murrells Inlet home, late at night, we would repair to his third-floor office—he had two others on the now-rebuilt property—and we would talk writing. In particular, he would regale me with ideas he had for future Mike Hammer novels. The subdued lighting invoked both the beachfront campfires where young lifeguard Frank Morrison Spillane would “scare hell out” of his friends with spooky stories, but that lighting also had an appropriately noir flavor.

After all, we were talking Mike Hammer.

It was in that office, during one bull session, that he shared with me the endings for King of the Weeds, The Big Bang and Kiss Her Goodbye—novels in progress that I would have been astonished to learn would eventually be completed by me . . . including putting Mickey’s mesmerizing endings into prose.

On one such occasion, he withdrew from somewhere—like Bugs Bunny summoning a carrot or a machine gun—a browning, crumble-edged, fairly lengthy manuscript. It ran about thirty dense single-spaced pages, the equivalent of sixty-some double-spaced pages. I began reading.

“You wrote this a long time ago,” I said.

He had pulled up a chair, turned it backward and sat, studying me, wearing a devilish, little-kid smile that threatened to turn to laughter at any moment. He nodded.

I kept reading. “This is good.”

Soft chuckle. “I know.” That laugh-threatening smile.

“Is this what I think it is?”

A sly nod. The smile continued.

For half an hour, he sat enjoying me enjoy what was clearly an early appearance of Mike Hammer. But it was different from anything else about Hammer I’d read—he was even more of a lone wolf. Velda wasn’t his secretary yet. He was doing an undercover job in a small corrupt town. Some of the flavor of the famous early non-Hammer, The Long Wait, permeated the ancient pages.

“This is terrific,” I said, when I’d breathlessly raced through the chapters. “Where does it go from here?”

He shrugged, collected the pages, stowed them somewhere, and we moved onto other subjects.

A month or so before his passing in the summer of 2006, Mickey had sent me The Last Stand. As it happened, what would be Mickey’s last completed novel was not a typical work—for one thing, it was a modern-day Western that didn’t feature Hammer at all.

We spoke on the phone and I told him what a kick I’d gotten out of it. He was happy with the book—happy to have finished it, under the circumstances of his failing health, but overall pleased, though he told me of a few things he’d like to touch up “if he had the time.” He then turned his attention to his final Hammer novel-in-progress, The Goliath Bone, calling me days before his death and asking me to complete it for him, if necessary.

Around this time, he also told his wife Jane that there would be a “treasure hunt” after he was gone, and to “give everything to Max—he’ll know what to do.” Jane reminded him that I was not a Jehovah’s Witness, and Mickey said he understood—I would not be bound to leave out things that might displease his church.

My wife Barb (with whom I write the Antiques mystery series) and I joined Jane in the treasure hunt that took us to all three of Mickey’s offices in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. The files were extensive, as I’ve indicated. We sat in the Spillane dining room with a feast of manuscripts before us, each of us combing through our stacks of pages, occasionally one of us crying out, “Here’s a Hammer!”

Unlike Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner—his contemporaries—Mickey did not write scores of novels about his famous character. There are around one-hundred Perry Mason novels, but Mickey published only thirteen Mike Hammer novels. This made the half-dozen significant Hammer manuscripts—again, usually in the 100-page range—such an exhilarating find.

One particularly brittle, discolored manuscript in the treasure hunt Jane, Barb, and I conducted (beautiful women are always around when Mike Hammer is involved) stirred my memory. Mickey had shown this one to me! It had been special to him. This represented the beginnings of Mike Hammer.

The Last Stand was a rare unpublished complete work. After much thought, and some input from Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai, I decided to put it aside. My immediate priority was to get the unpublished Mike Hammer material out there as well as the two other substantial unfinished crime novels, Dead Street and The Consummata, both in the familiar Spillane first-person style.

The Last Stand represents the culmination of the final phase of Mickey’s writing life, in which he was more interested in adventure than mystery—although from the beginning, Spillane heroes had been two-fisted adventurers, and all of his work contains elements of mystery and crime fiction. His two published books for preadolescents—The Day the Sea Rolled Back (1979) and The Ship That Never Was (1982)reflect that bent toward adventure and his love of the sea. His final published novel, Something’s Down There (2003), similarly reflects his enthusiasm for boating and deep-sea fishing, with Mike Hammer replaced by the evocatively (and similarly) named Mako Hooker.

Mickey’s final novel provides a coda to his larger body of work, and is at once atypical and typical. His hero, Joe Gillian (named for satellite writer, Joe Gill) is a tough, confident man, very much in the tradition of Hammer, Tiger Mann, and other Spillane protagonists. His story, however, is told in the third person, where the Hammer canon (and the vast majority of the writer’s fiction) is in vivid first person. Here the prose is spare but occasionally poetic, and dialogue drives the narrative.

In The Last Stand, Spillane returns to his recurring themes of male friendship and male/female companionship. It is easy (as someone once said) to see Hammer’s friend Pat Chambers in Gillian’s friend Pete, and Hammer’s life partner Velda in the lovely Running Fox. The bad rap Spillane gets as a supposed misogynist overlooks the obvious: The women in his fiction are usually strong, powerful and smart, every bit the hero’s equal.

That Joe Gillian bonds easily with the Indians of an unspecified “rez” is no surprise, either, as Mike Hammer’s friends were often among the outsiders of society. Nor is the modern-day Western aspect of the novel inconsistent with Mickey’s view of Mike Hammer as an urban gunslinger. The Mick’s interest in Westerns is also evident in the unproduced screenplay he wrote for his friend John Wayne, which has led to the posthumous novel, The Legend of Caleb York (Kensington Books, 2015) and several sequels.

Also present, not surprisingly, is the dominant theme of Spillane’s fiction—vengeance. But in The Last Stand, it’s the brute called One Arms who craves revenge, not hero Gillian, who is a man of a certain age at peace with himself, looking neither for trouble nor riches, though the love of a good woman does hold appeal. Crime-fighting and mystery seem almost to have to seek Gillian out, though seek him out they do.

Gillian’s very masculine but nonaggressive view on life reflects Spillane in his final years. The Hammer of Black Alley (1996) is definitely a laid-back version of the character, which pleases readers who have followed Hammer’s journey over the decades, but can confuse those who only know the hate-filled young investigator. Like Black Alley, The Last Stand is a barely concealed rumination on coming to terms with aging.

Not long after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Mickey and I sat one evening in the makeshift Tiki Bar he’d built in his backyard. Mickey spoke of his anger at those who had looted his home in the aftermath of the storm. I saw in his eyes the burning rage of Mike Hammer and he held his hands in front of him, squeezing them into fists. He told me what he would like to do the thieves, then his fists became fingers again, and he said, “But I’m not like that anymore. I don’t do that now.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, when I spoke to him about The Last Stand on the phone, he said to me, “You know, I really like that Big Arms.” If a voice can have a twinkle in it, his did. With that big-kid quality he often got, when he spoke of work he’d done that had pleased him, he said, “I really like that character.” Not Joe Gillian, but Big Arms, who haunts the good-natured pages of The Last Stand like Mike Hammer’s ghost.

The unfinished first Mike Hammer manuscript—amounting to a fairly substantial 60 double-spaced pages—also explored Spillane’s familiar themes, with an emphasis on the returning combat veteran’s loyalty to his buddies in battle. But there is also a strong female with whom Hammer bonds, and a corrupt town ruled by one wealthy man, as well as police force marbled with corruption. The pace Spillane establishes is break-neck, with a naked woman on page one and bent cops waiting in the wings to beat Hammer half to death. In its way, this was first (if unfinished) Hammer novel was as important as Mickey’s final, non-Hammer yarn. Likely begun in 1945, the novel I’ve called Killing Town is one of the most purely noir in the Hammer canon.

What to do with these two very special works?

That’s when it occurred to me that saving both of them for the centenary of Mickey’s 1918 birth would be perfect timing. Fortunately, Titan Books agreed with me. They, and their associate publisher, Hard Case Crime, were keen to celebrate Mickey’s day (a day of the guns, as it were) with the publication of the last solo Spillane novel, The Last Stand (which also includes a previously unpublished vintage Spillane novella, A Bullet for Satisfaction), and the very first Mike Hammer story, Killing Town.

It may be Spillane’s birthday year, but readers are getting the gifts.

Copyright 2018, Mickey Spillane Publishing, LLC.

This entry was posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Noir, Pop Culture, Private Eye, Western, Writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “Mickey Spillane at 100” (by Max Allan Collins)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    Thanks, Max — this is absolutely fascinating!

  2. pauldmarks says:

    Fascinating piece, Max. Always interesting to see behind the scenes of writers.

    And I love this, ““Oh, I know Max! We’ve been corresponding for years.” And I said, “That’s right, Mickey—one hundred letters from me, one letter from you.”” — I’d say 100 to one is not bad, all things considered 🙂 .

  3. Pingback: Incident Report No. 57 – Unlawful Acts

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