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STYLE & CULTURE | AN APPRECIATION

On a Mickey Spillane thrill ride through life

July 21, 2006|Max Allan Collins | Special to The Times

I'm 13: On a family vacation, somewhere in the heartland. Back home, at Cohn's Newsland, I've been eyeing the lurid covers of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels -- "I, the Jury," which ends with a striptease ("And she was a real blonde!") and "Kiss Me, Deadly" ("The flames were teeth that ate, ripping and tearing!"). Back home I didn't dare a purchase. Here I risked "One Lonely Night," with its cover of a mostly nude damsel, her wrists bound, hanging helpless.

"How old are you?" the vendor asks.

"Sixteen!"

"Are you sure?"

I throw down 35 cents and soon am devouring fever-dream prose in the backseat of a Pontiac. The vacation, I forget. The ride of the Spillane novel stays with me.

In the late 1940s, Spillane, former fighter pilot, was one of many World War II vets having a tougher time than promised in the glorious postwar world. He'd worked Gimbel's basement, selling neckties. Before the war he'd written comic books ("Captain America," "Submariner"), but the market had dried up some. And nobody wanted his private eye comic, "Mike Danger." He had a new wife and a chunk of land in upstate New York. He pitched a tent there and pounded out a harder-hitting, sexier prose version of the comic book.

He knew a guy who knew a guy at E.P. Dutton, and his nine-day wonder -- "I, the Jury" -- wound up in an editor's hands. The editor found it in poor taste but possibly commercial, and already there was reprint interest from Signet Books, whose sexy Erskine Caldwell paperbacks were doing well. Dutton took a chance.

"I, the Jury" came out in paperback in 1948 and was the biggest sensation in the history of mystery. Mickey became Dutton's fair-haired boy ("Death's Fair-Haired Boy," according to Life magazine). His sales soon surpassed Caldwell's, rocketing into the millions. The vigilante tactics of Mike Hammer were reviled by liberal critics, the (then) extreme sexual content riled conservative commentators. Spillane laughed it off, but perhaps felt the sting. Hollywood called and producer Victor Saville made movie versions that the author despised and the public tolerated -- one of these, Robert Aldrich's "Kiss Me Deadly" in 1955, achieved the status of a classic film noir. There was a comic strip, a radio show, and Darren McGavin played Hammer in a late 1950s TV show. Mickey took time off from the Hammer series to star in a movie for John Wayne ("Ring of Fear," 1954), tour with Clyde Beatty's circus, deep-sea dive, race stock cars, fly jets. Along the way he became a Jehovah's Witness.

I'm 18, a senior in high school. I've written three novels in the style of Spillane and have received numerous rejections but also encouragement from editors who don't know I'm a kid. I have collected everything of Spillane's I can get my hands on -- all the novels in first edition, buying the new ones and gathering older stories found in issues of Manhunt and Cavalier, 1950s mags rooted out in vile secondhand shops from Chicago to New York. I have written Spillane perhaps 30 fan letters. He has never responded.

Mickey didn't write much between 1952 and 1960, just some novellas and film scripts. In the early '50s, to meet the demand for the sexy, hard-hitting style of fiction he created, Spillane's distributor, Fawcett, decided to launch a line of paperback originals (prior to this, paperbacks were chiefly reprints of hardcovers). In the late '50s, Blake Edwards created the clever Hammer imitation Peter Gunn and sparked a private eye craze on TV. The Hammers continued selling despite Mickey's silence and by the beginning of the 1960s seven of the 10 bestselling books of all time were his (and he had only written seven). As a stopgap till Mickey started writing again, his paperback publisher, Signet, published a Spillane-influenced series of British spy novels, presenting "the English Mike Hammer," James Bond.

I'm 22, taking my MFA at the Writers Workshop at Iowa City. When my first novel sells while I'm still in the workshop, I write Spillane and send him my first book. Though dozens of prior letters have gone unanswered, he finally responds, welcoming me to the club.

\f7In the '60s and '70s Mickey roared back with more Mike Hammer novels, a movie in which he played his own famous hero (his acting received raves), and he published some bigger, blockbuster-style novels, including the outrageous "The Erection Set." He began an incredible run of 18 years doing Miller Lite commercials, spoofing himself as Hammer next to his lovely "doll." He wrote an award-winning children's book, "The Day the Sea Rolled Back," in 1979. He formed a partnership, after a casual meeting on an airplane, with Jay Bernstein, who produced numerous Hammer TV movies as well as three successful series, all starring Stacy Keach.

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