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July 17, 2006

Mickey Spillaine Dies At 88

No details of his death have been provided yet. One hopes it involved a dame and .45. He'd've wanted it that way.

Mickey Spillaine of course wrote the blood-and-guts Mike Hammer series, which liberal book critics called "fascistic" in its crude, naive belief that sometimes evil just needed some killin'. He's one of the few writers who every got the chance to play his most famous creation in a movie. He also got to play himself, basically, in a Columbo episode.

Ayn Rand was a big fan of his very masculine, "objectivist" sort of writing. Or at least she took it that way. I remember an essay of hers quoting this passage from Spillaine's One Lonely Night as the sort of direct, Roarkian writing she approved of:

NOBODY ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhatten by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.

Some place over there I had left my car and started walking, burying my head in the collar of my raincoat, with the night pulled in around me like a blanket. I walked and I smoked and I flipped the spent butts ahead of me and watched them arch to the pavement and fizzle out with one last wink. If there was life behind the windows of the buildings on either side of me, I didn't notice it. The street was mine, all mine. They gave it to me gladly and wondered why I wanted it so nice and all alone.

There were others like me, sharing the dark and the solitude, but they were huddled in the recessions of the doorways not wanting to share the wet and the cold. I could feel their eyes follow me briefly before they turned inward to their thoughts again.

So I followed the hard concrete footpaths of the city through the towering canyons of the buildings and never noticed when the sheer cliffs of brick and masonry diminished and disappeared altogether, and the footpath led into a ramp then on to the spidery steel skeleton that was the bridge linking two states.

I climbed to the hump in the middle and stood there leaning on the handrail with a butt in my fingers, watching the red and green lights of the boats in the river below. They winked at me and called in low, throaty notes before disappearing into the night.

Like eyes and faces. And voices.

I buried my face in my hands until everything straightened itself out again, wondering what the judge would say if he could see me now. Maybe he'd laugh because I was supposed to be so damn tough, and here I was with hands that wouldn't stand still and an empty feeling inside my chest.

Quoted from a pretty cool Mike Hammer site, if you're curious to read more about the tough-guy detective who just never got the props that Spade and Marlowe did.

Thanks to Kent for the tip.

More.... CNN has a good obit.

They call this "boilerplate," though. I think it's rather innovative in its brutality.

As a stylist Spillane was no innovator; the prose was hard-boiled boilerplate. In a typical scene, from "The Big Kill," Hammer slugs out a little punk with "pig eyes."

"I snapped the side of the rod across his jaw and laid the flesh open to the bone," Spillane wrote. "I pounded his teeth back into his mouth with the end of the barrel ... and I took my own damn time about kicking him in the face. He smashed into the door and lay there bubbling. So I kicked him again and he stopped bubbling."

He had no pretensions, though:

Spillane, a bearish man who wrote on an old manual Smith Corona, always claimed he didn't care about reviews. He considered himself a "writer" as opposed to an "author," defining a writer as someone whose books sell.

"This is an income-generating job," he told The Associated Press during a 2001 interview. "Fame was never anything to me unless it afforded me a good livelihood."

Mystery writer Lawrence Block recalled one time Spillaine was on a roundtable chat with other writers, and they were asked what spurs them to write. The others gave the typical answers, like "when I get inspired by an idea" or "when there's just something inside of me that needs to get out." After a few minutes of this Spillaine said (paraphrased), "When are we going to talk about money? Because I'll tell you, I start getting the urge to write another book when my bank account gets down to zero."

At which point, Spillaine having broached the crude issue, the other writers piped up to say they, too, tended to get the "most inspired" when a big mortgage payment was on its way.

And Still More... Cool background:

Mickey Spillane was born in Brooklyn, New York, as the son of a bartender. In his youth he read such writers as Alexandre Dumas and Anthony Hope, and was also fascinated by comic books. He attended briefly Fort Hays State College in Kansas, but dropped out, moved back to New York, and began his writing career in the mid-1930s. Spillane's first stories were published mostly in comic books and pulp magazines. He developed Mike Danger, a private detective, and wrote among others for Captain America, Captain Marvel, and The Human Torch. During WW II Spillane worked as a flying instructor for the U.S. Army Air Force.

If anyone doesn't like some of the word-choice in the One Lonely Night passage above, bear in mind: Spillaine wrote his first book, I, the Jury (what a title) in nine days.

Compare that to Chandler's taking two or three years on a book. Sure, Chandler's a better writer. But there's no doubting Spillaine was a lot more efficient.

His most famous lines were from the end of that first book. After he shoots the dangerous dame who's been his lover, but is now revealed as a murderer:

"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.

Ohhh, snap, as all the kids say.

He Had The Right Enemies Update: He was attacked by Dr. Frederic Wertham, who, as all true geeks know, almost killed the comic book industry by claiming comic books promoted hooliganism and homosexuality.

"Why should one of the most popular authors of the twentieth century need defending? Easy, as Mike Hammer might say: his subject matter and his approach were so hard-hitting, so individual, that Spillane repelled the more proper and staid among the Literary Establishment (and the Establishment in general, including Dr. Frederic Wertham and Parents Magazine and other unpointed arbiters of public morality.). ... ( 'Mecca Spillane' by Max Allan Collins, in The Big Book of Noir, 1998)

Spillane has told that he finishes his text in two weeks and do not revise anything he has written. Although critics have tried to belittle the author's achievements, Spillane has had such defenders as Ayn Rand, who has said, that "Spillane gives me the feeling of hearing a military band in a public park." To his critics Spillane has answered, "but it's good garbage." On a list complied in 1967 of all the best-selling books published in America between 1895 and 1965, seven of the top twenty-nine were written by Spillane. Especially during the height of anti-Communist paranoia, Hammer's unyielding, patriotic character comforted many American readers.

And he wrote for Batman, too.

Some more of Spillane's unnuanced politics. Or rather, mostly his wife's. He doesn't like talking about them. But you get a feel for the general contours.

We weren't far along the road when he showed me a card: a permit to carry a concealed weapon. "What do you need to carry a concealed weapon for?" I ask. "In case I need to shoot someone... Aye, that's a joke."

...

"[My wife's] an intellectual," he told me in the car disgruntled. "She loves politics. I married her on Hallowe'en. Still don't know if it was a trick or treat."

...

Mickey hates politics; he'd rather talk about fishing. Jane and I began talking politics. "I hate the Clintons," she said. "I am part of the rightwing international conspiracy".

...

While we talked he sat there whistling. "People ask me how I like being married to a male chauvinist pig," Jane told me. "And I say: 'I love every minute of it'."

...

He told me he hates the French because they hate Americans, and he does not like to travel anyway. He does not feel indebted to the French for giving him honorary intellectual status.

Now, Hammett and Chandler were better writers, but... Hammett was a Commie symp -- errr, socialist utopian -- and Chandler was a stumbling wreck of a man, an alcoholic who did not handle his affliction particularly well, a bit of a persnicketty Anglophile, and had a very loving, though strangely dependent, relationship with his much-older wife.

On the other hand, Mickey Spillaine knocked out mutlimillion-selling books in two weeks, refused to revise a word of his cranked-out books, wrote blood-soaked tales of Commie-hunting, punk-bludgeoning, and dame-slapping, wrote for Captain America and Batman as a young writer, and proudly admits he did all for the damn money.

I think I know which of the three I'd want to have a drink with.


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