International Crime & Mystery
His “Customers” Were the Jury:
Mickey Spillane (1918–2006)
J. MADISON DAVIS
A student of mine some years ago told me how he had taken a summer job in the Charleston, South Carolina, area as a house painter and was told to go to the Morrison house at Murrells Inlet. Usually, homeowners can’t wait to get away from the mess and the smell, but Mr. Morrison (so they thought) hung around, chatting without barking orders, bringing them cool drinks. He was charming and funny, but they were getting a little tired of his persistence. They asked him from what business he had retired. “I’m not retired,” he laughed. “I’m a writer.” Suddenly, then, they knew why he had seemed familiar. “Frank Morrison” was Frank Morrison Spillane: “Mickey Spillane,” perhaps the only living novelist recognizable enough to appear in one hundred Miller Lite beer commercials.
Over the next few days, they asked Spillane many of the usual questions nonwriters ask published writers. Where do you get your ideas? How many hours a day do you write? How long does it take you to write a book? His answers seemed flippant, like jokes he had repeated many times. He didn’t get ideas; he just started. He wrote however many hours he needed to get finished. How long it took to write a book depended on alimony, when the rent was due, and blown gaskets. Once, he said, desperate for money, he had written a novel on a weekend. In September 1989 Hurricane Hugo crashed into South Carolina, destroying his house, and it was only a matter of weeks before Spillane was on the Tonight Show promoting The Killing Man, his first Mike Hammer novel since 1970, to pay for repairs. According to legend, he wrote his first novel I, the Jury (1947) in nine days, in order to get $1,000 for a piece of land. Once, he told the house painters, he had been taking a manuscript to the publisher and lost it. That must have been awful, said the painters. “No big deal,” said Spillane, “I just typed it out again.”
You would suspect from all this that Frank Morrison Spillane was a man who played his own character, Mickey Spillane, and that Mickey Spillane often played his character, Mike Hammer. Yet no one I know ever indicated they had seen anything that revealed he was other than what he appeared to be, a genuinely unassuming person. He was never pretentious about his work, and on the one occasion I met him at the Edgar Allan Poe awards banquet of the Mystery Writers of America in 2000, when he was eighty-two and long a legend, he pumped my hand as if he were thoroughly pleased to meet me, not vice versa. He seemed thoroughly pleased to meet everyone who wanted to meet him, and, in that room filled with many of the most successful mystery writers in the world, everyone did.
The MWA honored him in 1995 by designating him a Grandmaster, but pleased as he was, he had always refused to become a member of the Mystery Writers of America. He also pleasantly declined our invitation to join the International Association of Crime Writers, as we knew he would. “Frankly,” he wrote, “being a writer and not an author, I never thought anybody would want me in their club anyway.”1 He was just a “writer,” he insisted, and referred to his readers as “customers.” His advice on the literary arts was merely, “Keep the writers on typewriters. There is no music to a computer!”2 Critics and authors didn’t hear the music, trashing his books and his prose style. Anthony Boucher said that I, the Jury was “so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school.”3 Raymond Chandler said, “Pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff.”4 The Saturday Review of Literature panned it with the summation, “Lurid action, lurid characters, lurid writing, lurid plot, lurid finish. Verdict: Lurid.”5
The customers paid no attention.
“If the public likes you, you’re good,” Spillane said.6 He is estimated to have sold two hundred million copies of thirteen novels through 2006. Of the top fifteen best-selling books by 1980, seven of them were by Spillane.7 At one point he was estimated to be the fifth most translated author of all time, behind Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorky, and Jules Verne.8 I, the Jury alone sold two million copies in paperback on its release and is credited with creating the market for paperback originals.9 The literary novelists today, who can find a venue for their work only among the trade paperbacks, may owe him more than they let on.
Almost the only writer who defended him in his early career was, curiously, Ayn Rand. “You are the only modern writer with whom I do share the loyalty of my best readers—and I am proud of this,” she wrote to him.10 The two of them commiserated about their treatment at the hands of critics, and some people think that Rand had a crush on him. It’s not hard to imagine him as the novelist equivalent of Howard Roark.
Mike Hammer, his detective hero, was played by several actors (Stacy Keach, Darren McGavin, Ralph Meeker, and Armand Assante, among them) and by Spillane himself in the 1963 movie The Girl Hunters. How many novelists have ever had the chance to portray the lead role of their own creation? It’s not a very good movie, but Spillane is better in the lead role than most of the professional actors around him. Readers often speculate on how much a character is a reflection of the writer, but the case of Spillane gets even more perplexing when we consider that in 1951, after four novels, he converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith and spent almost a decade going door to door as a missionary. If you liked I, the Jury, doll, you’ll love The Watchtower? He was a Jehovah’s Witness who promoted for two decades—in one of the world’s most successful advertising campaigns—an alcoholic beverage? During his hiatus from writing, Hammer’s trench coat was empty. Numerous imitators tried it on. Like the glass slipper, it never quite fit.
I, the Jury plainly owes a great deal to The Maltese Falcon in its portrayal of a scheming woman who manipulates the detective with her sexuality. There is, however, a much stronger element of misogyny in Mike Hammer’s shooting Charlotte Manning in her “stark naked” stomach and saying, “It was easy,” than in Sam Spade’s tortured decision to turn Brigid O’Shaughnessy over to the cops. We could ascribe it to the postwar attempt to restore prewar normalcy by the assertion of the “normal” male dominance fantasized by all those men whose lives were disrupted by World War II. We could attribute the popularity of Mike Hammer to readers’ pleasure in the fantasy of restoring an imaginary America where men are men and women are women, and commie infiltrators need a good dose of lead. Another aspect of the popularity is Spillane’s insistence on not looking down his nose at the reader. Like all good children’s literature (and Spillane did write two children’s books), Spillane’s novels never condescend. Most authors do, in one way or another. Your “customers” are your friends, said Spillane. Here, pal, have a beer. Try a little of the sex and violence while you’re at it. That’s what you like, isn’t it?
Well, yes, even the most sophisticated readers chew on sex and violence in some form, but all these explanations and all the others, psychological and otherwise, aren’t quite enough. All the elements we can cite as contributing to his huge popularity and celebrity were present in most of his imitators and in many works by many authors before he gave up writing comic books for novels. Perhaps the secret of his success is not in the particular ingredients but in the recipe’s proportions and balance. This seems a peculiar equation to compare Spillane with a chef—perhaps “cook” is better. As Spillane himself pointed out, you sell more salted peanuts than caviar. As we grow more sophisticated, we become more interested in subtler and subtler flavors, becoming dismissive of common fare, the meat and potatoes that shout, “Food!”
Nevertheless, underlying all meals is basic hunger, and underlying our pleasure in novels is the basic hunger for story, that mundane bit about what happens next. We can pick out Spillane’s bad sentences and chuckle at the implausible plots, but even if his name fades in the future, it is difficult to dismiss anyone whose stories affected millions of people. Readers wanted his stories, perhaps needed them, in ways we can only dimly understand. It is so difficult to grasp this marvelous thing we call literature. There are only a few truly great storytellers in any generation, people who capture an age and perhaps speak to later ages as well, who captivate audiences as we imagine Homer or the Irish bards did by campfires on lonely nights. Whatever else he was, Mickey Spillane was a storyteller. He didn’t need for me or Chandler or anyone else to think of him as an author. Perhaps most important of all, he saw no need to be one.
University of Oklahoma
1 Letter from Mickey Spillane to Mary Frisque, executive director of the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers, May 24, 2000.
2 Letter to Mary Frisque.
3 San Francisco Chronicle, August 3, 1947.
4 “Biography for Mickey Spillane,” Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com.
5 Saturday Review of Literature, August 9, 1947.
6 Cathy Burke, “Mickey’s Final Chapter—Crime-Writing Legend Mickey Spillane Dies,” New York Post, July 18, 2006, p. 24.
7 John Sutherland, “Mickey Spillane: Bestselling Writer of Shoot-em-up Crime Novels,” Guardian, July 18, 2006, books.guardian.co.uk/obituaries.
8 John Holland, “Mickey Spillane: You, the Jury,” Crime Time, October 2, 2006, www.crimetime.co.uk/features/spillane.php.
9 Kevin Burton Smith, “Authors and Creators: Mickey Spillane”; and Max Allan Collins, “Mickey Spillane: This Time It’s Personal,” both at Thrilling Detective, www.thrillingdetective.com.
10 John Meroney, “Mickey Spillane, Man of Mysteries,” Washington Post, August 22, 2001, p. C1.
J. Madison Davis is the author of several crime novels and nonfiction books, most recently The Van Gogh Conspiracy (2005) and Conspiracy and the Freemasons: How the Secret Society and Their Enemies Shaped the Modern World (2006). He serves as regional vice president of the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers and teaches novel and film-script writing in the Professional Writing Program of the Gaylord College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.
“From the March-April 2007 issue of World Literature Today (81:2), pages 6-8. Copyright 2007 World Literature Today.”