Man of Mysteries
It’d Been Years Since Spillane Pulled a Job. Could We Find Him? Yeah. It Was Easy.
By John Meroney
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 22, 2001
MURRELLS INLET, S.C.– For a man who has the reputation as the toughest tough guy in all of mystery fiction, Mickey Spillane really isn’t all that hard-boiled after all.
These days, at age 83, the writer of the classic 1947 detective novel “I, the Jury,” containing the famous line by gun-wielding private eye Mike Hammer, “I’m the jury now, and the judge, and . . . I sentence you to death,” is more obsessed with justice than vengeance.
Now living in this South Carolina fishing village, Spillane and his wife have spent the past 10 years questioning the verdict of a high-profile homicide case — a brutal murder in which a high school student was convicted of stabbing his girlfriend to death. Most observers saw it as open-and-shut. But the Spillanes believed an innocent man might have gone to jail. Spillane’s reluctance to render judgments in real-life crimes even extends to O.J. Simpson. While the conventional wisdom may be that the ex-football star is a guilty man, Spillane has always given him the benefit of the doubt, and only now will reluctantly admit that Simpson might be a murderer.
But next month, the other side of Spillane will again emerge. The New American Library is publishing two volumes of the best of his novels, from the late 1940s and early ’50s. In books like “I, the Jury,” “One Lonely Night” and “Kiss Me, Deadly” (all included in the collections, and all starring Mike Hammer), Spillane secured a permanent place for himself in the pantheon of such mystery greats as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.
A fall rollout is being planned for “A Century of Noir” (also from NAL), a volume containing some of Spillane’s rare magazine stories from the same era, which he edited with mystery writer Max Allan Collins. An independent documentary of Spillane’s life was recently completed, and Jay Bernstein, producer of a Mike Hammer TV series that ran on CBS during the ’80s, is gearing up to sell prime time on another incarnation of the private detective, with a twist worthy of some of Spillane’s best shockers.
“I never thought anything big would come of all my writing,” says Spillane. “I just always wrote the kind of stuff I like to read.”
Others liked it, too, although it had a slow start. Spillane’s first book, “I, the Jury,” published in hardcover by Dutton, is the story that introduced Hammer to late-’40s America. In it, the detective is avenging the murder of an old Army pal, and the novel ends with three words that rank as one of the most famous — and unforgettable — conclusions in all of mystery fiction. But the book wasn’t a success until it appeared a year later in paperback. By 1951, Spillane had written the three best-selling mysteries of all time. According to today’s industry estimates, his 26 books have sold more than 200 million copies. Long before Jacqueline Susann, Mario Puzo, Stephen King and John Grisham, long before the blockbuster bestseller, there was Mickey Spillane, toiling away in I-like-Ike America.
“While Hammett and Chandler were successful and well known, they never approached the kind of success in terms of readership and recognition that Mickey has had,” says Otto Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York.
But selling books wasn’t the only area where Spillane cornered the market. He is the only mystery writer to portray his sleuth on film: 1963′s “The Girl Hunters” has Spillane outfitted in a trench coat and porkpie hat, playing opposite Shirley Eaton in a screenplay based on his book. During the ’70s, Spillane went a step further and appeared in TV commercials for Miller Lite, parodying his reputation and helping make a name for the new beer. One spot, shot film noir style, showed Spillane in his office on a rainy night, pounding out his next bestseller on a manual typewriter. The story heard in his voice-over: “Chapter 9. I kicked in the door and shouted ‘Freeze!’ to the lone figure in the room. Even in the dark I could see she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever met. Then I saw a Lite Beer from Miller. ‘It’s got a third less calories than a regular beer, and it’s less filling,’ she whispered. ‘But the best thing is it tastes so great.’ Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place and I knew I’d come to the end of a long, long road. She poured. We drank. To be continued.”
In the books, Mike Hammer was no Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. And he was certainly no sophisticated Nick Charles. Hammer was always a man on a mission, righting a wrong, settling a score. He was Dirty Harry long before Clint Eastwood was even in “Rawhide.” As Hammer explains to the head of police homicide in “I, the Jury”: “You’re a cop, Pat. You’re tied down by rules and regulations. There’s someone over you. I’m alone. . . . No one can kick me out of my job. Maybe there’s nobody to put up a huge fuss if I get gunned down, but then I still have a private cop’s license with the privilege to pack a rod, and they’re afraid of me. Some day, before long, I’m going to have a rod in my mitt and the killer in front of me. I’m going to watch the killer’s face. I’m going to plunk one right in his gut, and when he’s dying on the floor I may kick his teeth out.”
Spillane never really wrote sex scenes; he wrote about sexuality in a way that was unapologetically sensual and often seemed more provocative than the act itself. In “I, the Jury,” it’s all in the line of duty: “She was making no attempt to keep the negligee on. . . . I wondered how she got her tan. There were no strap marks anywhere. She uncrossed her legs deliberately and squirmed like an overgrown cat, letting the light play with the ripply muscles in her naked thighs. . . . I was only human. I bent over her, taking her mouth on mine. . . . She quivered under my hands wherever I touched her. . . . My hand fastened on the hem of her negligee and with one motion flipped it open, leaving her body lean and bare. She let my eyes search every inch of her brown figure. I grabbed my hat and jammed it on my head. ‘It must be your sister who has the birthmark,’ I told her as I rose. ‘See you later.’ “
As popular as Spillane became with readers, it’s probably safe to say that in the decade or so after World War II, no writer of fiction incurred the wrath of the intellectual elite the way he did. Life put it pretty accurately in 1952 when it said that “no major book reviewer, anywhere, ever said a kind word about Mickey Spillane.” Some critics claimed to be horrified and revolted by his work. They labeled him gruesome and shocking. From afar, critics psychoanalyzed Spillane and asserted that the way he wrote about women revealed that he hated them. One review of “I, the Jury” said the book may soon be “required reading in a Gestapo training school.”
Just as famous, though, were Spillane’s rebukes: “I pay no attention to those jerks who think they’re critics,” he would say. “I don’t give a hoot about reading reviews. What I want to read are the royalty checks.” Today Spillane still laughs about it, and tells the story of the dinner party where “some New York literary guy” walked up to him and said, “I think it’s disgraceful that of the 10 best-selling books of all time, seven were written by you,” to which Spillane replied, “You’re lucky I’ve only written seven books.”
But it wasn’t just prudery about sexuality and violence that motivated Spillane’s critics: The political ideology and philosophical content of his novels also seemed to cut against the grain of the prevailing ethos. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s excesses were giving anti-communism a bad name. Spillane opted to forge ahead and make defiant anti-communism a staple of several of his novels.
There is little moral ambiguity in Spillane’s work. Mostly, Mike Hammer sees the world in black and white. Often he looks at his cases in biblical terms, and once articulated his philosophy this way: “There’s no shame or sin in killing a killer. David did it when he knocked off Goliath. Saul did it when he slew his tens of thousands. There’s no shame to killing an evil thing.”
In the 1951 novel “One Lonely Night” (which Spillane says is one of his favorites) Hammer’s investigation leads him to the Communist Party, which he believes may be behind a murder, as well as the kidnapping of his secretary, Velda. Along the way, Hammer changes from an apolitical man who jokingly admits that “I haven’t voted since they dissolved the Whig party” to one who sees to the harsh realities of the Cold War, and equates the Soviet regime and Communist Party to Nazi Germany in white-hot if not purple prose:
“I could laugh now and think rings around them all because I was smarter than the best they could offer. Torture, Death, and Lies were their brothers, but I had dealt with those triplets many times myself. They weren’t strangers to me.”
Mickey and Ayn
Spillane’s effectiveness at tailoring that political message for the masses made him the envy of intellectual conservatives and won him affection from another best-selling novelist who also endured critical skewering: Ayn Rand.
Spillane smiles when the writer of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” is mentioned. “We were good friends,” he says. Rand was an atheist and Spillane was devoutly religious, but they found common cause in their opposition to communism, a theme they agreed should be championed in literature. Rand also liked Spillane because her concept of an ideal man was similar to the Mike Hammer character: tough, strong-willed, independent. She admired the way Spillane dramatized themes of moral absolutism in his detective plots. In 1961, partly as a publicity stunt, their publisher helped arrange a dinner meeting between them in New York. Spillane still recalls the affair: “It lasted four hours,” he says. Later, Rand wrote to Spillane privately, explaining what happened when she got home: “I wish I could have brought you in with me that night, after our meeting, because you might have been pleasantly shocked, as I was: When I entered my apartment, six young people (my students and close friends) were there, with my husband, waiting for me — and had been waiting for several hours — to hear what Mickey Spillane is like in person. The news that I was going to meet you had spread through our own grapevine — and there they were.
“All of them are enthusiastic admirers of yours — all of them (including me) had been disappointed too often, when meeting famous people — and so it was an enormous pleasure for all of us that I could give them a report on you (on any publicly reportable issues) which, for once, confirmed and raised, rather than lowered, our enthusiasm. You are the only modern writer with whom I do share the loyalty of my best readers — and I am proud of this.”
Rand appreciated Spillane’s precision as a writer, and in an essay on literature (which appears in her book “The Romantic Manifesto”) quotes from Spillane’s description of New York at night as an example of his skill — “The rain was misty enough to be almost foglike, 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 Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy yellow lights off in the distance” — and then compares it to a passage by Thomas Wolfe — “The city had never seemed as beautiful as it looked that night. For the first time he saw that New York was supremely, among the cities of the world, a city of night. There had been achieved here a loveliness that was astounding and incomparable, a kind of modern beauty, inherent to its place and time, that no other place nor time could match.”
To Rand, “there is not a single emotional word or adjective in Spillane’s description; he presents nothing save visual facts; but he selects only those facts, only those eloquent details, which convey the visual reality of the scene and create a mood of desolate loneliness.” Wolfe, she argued, used only estimates, “and in the absence of any indication of what aroused these estimates, they are arbitrary assertions and meaningless generalities.”
Rand’s letters to Spillane (reprinted in the book “Letters of Ayn Rand”) appear to indicate she was taken with more than just his writing. On one occasion, she mailed him a gift and wrote, “I am waiting eagerly to see you again. As you say, ‘Time ran out on us the other evening.’ But is there any reason why time should run us, rather than the other way around? Love, Ayn.” Later, when Rand missed seeing Spillane after “The Girl Hunters” was published, she wrote to him: “Why have you vanished? I was hoping to hear from you when you were in New York, but I understand that you have been rushing in and out of the city and that one can never catch you. If you want me to be a ‘Spillane Hunter’ — take this as part of the pursuit.”
When asked whether Ayn Rand had a crush on him, Spillane just smiles. “I really liked her,” he says, noting that much of their camaraderie came from an “us against them” view of the critics. “They hate us, don’t they?” Spillane would say to her.
The Case Next Door
In recent years, it is real-life crime that has captured Spillane’s attention. He is an avid viewer of Court TV, and it was the cable network that caused Spillane and his wife, Jane, to become involved in a nearby 1991 murder case. Johnnie Kenneth Register was convicted of a killing that sounds like one that would have spurred Mike Hammer to action. Register, then an 18-year-old high school student, was found guilty of raping his girlfriend, Crystal Faye Todd, stabbing her at least 30 times, slashing her throat and finally disemboweling her.
The Spillanes met with Register and interviewed him, but despite DNA tests that prosecutors said proved his guilt, they came to the conclusion that the young man was incapable of committing such a heinous act. The Spillanes believed Register was the victim of a corrupt legal system, and argued that the prosecutor for Horry and Georgetown counties, Ralph Wilson, had tampered with evidence to frame him. Jane Spillane even mounted her own political candidacy to challenge the prosecutor in 1998, and although she didn’t win, many feel that it was her entry in what was a two-way race that caused the incumbent prosecutor to ultimately lose his bid for reelection. Nevertheless, both the South Carolina and U.S. supreme courts have upheld Register’s 1993 conviction. While the Spillanes still maintain the case was botched from the beginning, they now admit the weight of evidence against Register is enormous, but argue there is no way Register was the only one involved in Todd’s death.
Mostly, though, Mickey Spillane’s days are free of the kind of controversy that his novels generated. The man who penned sexually provocative scenes is actually a family man, married to the same woman for almost 20 years. This afternoon he has returned from taking his grandchildren to the amusement park rides in nearby Myrtle Beach. He is also deeply religious, committed to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, and attends meetings at Kingdom Hall five times a week.
Those most familiar with Spillane’s work say that his novels softened after his 1951 conversion, a notion that Spillane dismisses. But in 1952 he told Life: “There are more books on the way, but they won’t contain the things that bolster the excuses for the moral breakdown of this present generation. I’ve changed my work and course of action to be in harmony with Jehovah’s Kingdom.”
Missing from the Spillanes’ rambling house are the kinds of mementos that come with a 60-year writing career — Hurricane Hugo destroyed many of them when it hit in 1989, destroying their previous residence. He completely rebuilt the house on the same site where he’s lived since moving here from Newburgh, N.Y., in 1953. One thing that was salvaged, and which visitors can’t miss seeing, is his vintage Jaguar XK-140, which John Wayne surprised him with after Spillane wrote part of the Wayne-produced film “Ring of Fear” in the 1950s. “He didn’t know what to give me because I told him not to pay me,” says Spillane. “But he knew I liked cars. I used to look around when I was out in Hollywood — ‘Boy, I’d love to have one of those’ — but knew I’d probably never buy any. One morning I opened the front door and there was this car with a big red ribbon wrapped around it and a card that said, ‘Thanks, Duke.’ “
The Final Word
In the documentary “Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane,” which Max Allan Collins produced and is readying for film festivals and a possible TV premiere, Spillane tells about a $1,000 wager he made with an editor, betting him that an entire novel could be built on a one-word climax occurring on the final page. Spillane calls that the perfect book. “My idea was that if you took the last word away you wouldn’t know what the book was about. When I turned in “Vengeance Is Mine!,” I turned it in with the last word missing,” says Spillane. “The editor said, ‘What was the word? What was the word?’ I said, ‘Give me a thousand bucks,’ and I gave him the word.” As readers know, it made the book.
The phone rings. It’s Hollywood producer Jay Bernstein on the line, updating Spillane on his concept for a new Mike Hammer series that he wants to sell to an industry enamored of “Sex and the City.”
Bernstein has a plan to remake Mike Hammer into something even Mickey Spillane could never have dreamed up.
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