MICKEY’S GIVING MURDER A BAD NAME
Once the whodunit was a cosy haven in a troubled world. But since best-selling Mickey Spillane’s bloodshot private eye Mike Hammer moved in the joint’s been jumping with sex and sadism. And Mickey’s become a preacher
THE best-selling writer of the age is a young Hudson River squire named Mickey Spillane. In four years ten million twenty-five-cent copies of five Spillane books have been sold. The literary world is variously terrified and elated over the Spillane phenomenon. He is rapidly overtaking the paperback champion, Erskine Caldwell, whose thirteen books have sold twenty-six million copies in a decade.
Spillane writes mystery shockers. His hero is a private investigator named Mike Hammer. The millions who have grabbed Hammer books out of drugstores, tobacco stores and newsstands have not been motivated by the love of beautiful letters. Many of them haven’t read any other books. The Hammer books read like parodies of pulp detective stories. Spillane’s books have about as much suspense as a day-coach sandwich.
Professional readers in the two publishing firms that handle Spillane go white at the chops when his latest product arrives, but the auditing departments break into a soft-shoe dance. The Hammer books contain the uttermost, postally permissible budget of blood, gore, sex, transvestitism, sadism and bestiality. An old mystery addict of my acquaintance bought some Spillane, read them, and solemnly walked down the street and presented them to a psychiatric clinic as something to chomp on when the patients were slow.
Spillane doesn’t want anybody to think that he is guilty of literature. “Those long-haired jerks who try to write those so-called great novels forget that writing is a form of entertainment,” he told me.
Older practitioners of the mystery novel feel that Spillane may kill off the medium. One of every four books published in North America is a mystery, but the art may have no place to go after Spillane. The Hammer books introduce the final note: the detective hero is criminally insane. Mike Hammer commits half the murders himself. Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the mystery formula over a century ago, Conan Doyle, who popularized the literary detective, and poor old Nick Carter, the dime cop, have been done the dirty by Spillane. In their day Hammer would have been the unspeakable villain: today he is the hero.
During a recent decisive week in his life, I met thirty -fouryear -old Frank Morrison (Mickey) Spillane, head hot rod of the quarter dreadfuls. He is an athletic green-eyed man with a crew haircut and is frank and likeable. The Boy-Scout virtues could have been copied from him. He is a fond father and a loving husband and keeps dozens of stray dogs and cats. He has many loyal friends. Among his country neighbors he has a reputation as a good Samaritan. He carries a pocket Bible, which he fetches out frequently to read salvation into his acquaintances. When he is not engaged in committing homicide and flagellation on his L. C. Smith he tramps from door to door announcing the end of the world and informing the lost and mislaid how they can be elected to eternal life. Spillane is a lay minister of the Newburgh, N.Y., company of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Spillane lives in a cinder-block house he built himself in the apple-and-egg country near Newburgh. He built the house and the house built Mike Hammer. In 1946 Spillane, a disgruntled war veteran smarting under a New York landlord’s gouge, found a remote acreage which, with building materials, would cost a thousand dollars. Spillane sat down and wrote in nineteen days a violent curd 1er called I, the Jury—the first Mike Hammer book. He bet that his previous experience writing pulps and crime comics, plus his choked hatred of things as they are, would raise the G-note for his homestead.
He gave the manuscript to a friend who was a salesman of printing time to book and magazine publishers. The friend sold I, the Jury to his first contact, E. P. Dutton, a respectable old house. It was accepted by the publisher and Spillane got his thousand-dollar advance. He built his house.
The $2.50 hard-cover Dutton edition of I, the Jury appeared in 1947 in ten thousand copies. In the normal course of events this first book would
have paid him twenty-five hundred dollars in royalties and then dropped dead. But I, the Jury caught on. Most of the reviewers who paid it notice said it was the toughest or most depraved mystery of the month, according to their respect for civilization and their understanding of the protagonist.
The book had an extraordinary moral: the hero elected himself as law, cop, judge, jury and executioner. In a medical diagnosis Spillane’s detective was a criminal paranoiac, a vengeful gutter messiah, who went around spouting his paranoid symptoms before he killed: “I have more enemies than I have friends ... I make my own rules as I go along and I don’t have to account to anybody ... I am the law ... I am a misanthropist.
I don’t like people. I don’t like any kind of people.” Students of pathological symptoms found a rich study in the vast syndrome rioting inside Hammer’s skull: “My head started banging with that insane music that was all kettledrums and shrill flutes blended together in wild discord.”
The readers did not stop to consult psychiatrists. They paid their quarters for the dip-the-dip and it bucketed them over one shrill emotion after another. The books had fairies, naked women being whipped, movies of strip teases, heroes kicking fallen men in the teeth and surgical lithographs of bullet holes for junior readers who might not grasp the rest of Spillane’s effects. Hammer commits his first murder at the end of I, the Jury when he assassinates his blond mistress at the end of a slow strip tease. A Florida reviewer set the note of many critics when he said, “Spillane and Hammer set civilization back fifty years.” A female critic in the same state wrote, “In a long and misspent life immersed in blood I don’t believe I’ve ever met a tougher hombre than Mike Hammer, Private Eye.”
The first book was a hit. Reprint rights were assigned to the world’s biggest book publisher, the New American Library of World Literature. Its twenty-five-cent Signet imprint (James M. Cain to Jaroslav Hasek), its thirty-five-cent Signet Giants and Mentor books (Joe DiMaggio to the Iliad), and its fifty-cent double volumes (Kathleen Winsor to The Naked and the Dead) sell more than the total books of all other North American publishers combined.
Spillane’s first book has gone into twenty-one Signet printings, more than two million copies. As Spillane’s four succeeding Hammer products appeared—Vengeance Is Mine, One Lonely Night, My Gun Is Quick and The Big Kill—new readers demanded the older books. The initial print order on Spillane’s latest, The Big Kill, was two and a half million copies, the largest single edition of a book ever published. The publishers have distributed six hundred and fifty thousand copies of Spillane’s five books in Canada.
If psychoanalysts were engrossed with Spillania,
sociologists were more so. The Hammer books are saturated with contempt for legal processes. Hammer says, “I’m not letting the killer go through the tedious process of the law ... I don’t want to arrest somebody, I just want to shoot somebody.” They are full of brutal beating: “I took a short half step and kicked that sonofabitch so hard in the face that his teeth came out in my shoe.” The Hammer books sell best among young people and members of the armed forces.
Spillane himself has a Red phobia. He told me, “Every time I caught a Communist in Brooklyn I’d beat hell out of him.” In One Lonely Night, Spillane wrote what he called a “political book.” His detective murders a roomful of Communists with a tommy gun. The final “kill,” to use the writer’s term, is a liberal politician who has gotten involved with the Reds. None of Hammer’s dozen “kills” have resulted in his arrest, indictment or trial.
Spillane says he plots his stories backwards. “First I think of the surprise ending and work backwards, building it up like a joke.” Invariably the twist endings have Hammer killing a sympathetic character whom he has unmasked as a baddie. In two books the final murderee is Hammer’s mistress. Spillane is artistically most gratified by the ending of Vengeance Is Mine, in which he achieved his aim of unloading the surprise in the last line. Juno, a beautiful blonde, is disrobing in front of Hammer’s gun, while he waits to kill her. The last line is, “Juno was a man!”
Spillane says his books are not detective novels, which he defines as stories about an investigator who is called in to solve a case. He says he writes mysteries, in which the detective is personally involved in the murders and has strong private motivations to avenge them. Hammer’s murder cases are usually women who have been intimate with him. Spillane uses the standard atmosphere of thrillers: a cop who is Hammer’s friend, plenty of fog, snow, rain, barrooms, and calendar girls posing invitingly for the hero. The obligatory character in private-eye yarns, the beautiful secretary, is also present in the person of Velda, Hammer’s assistant, who has “a face that was beauty capable of extremes of every emotion.” Velda’s emotional range consists of panting for the detective. In the meantime her boss is fighting off platoons of technicolored babes, whose solicitation is blunt and often successful. Hammer’s women revolve into view like ducks in a shooting gallery, say their pieces (“Your body is huge, Mike. Your
mind is the same. No repressions.”) and are shot down promptly.
Frank Morrison Spillane is thirty-four, the only child of an ex-bartender in Brooklyn. His father was Irish Catholic, his mother Protestant. He says, “I was christened in two churches and neither took.” At twenty Spillane started writing comic-book plots and pulp stories. During the war he was a pilot instructor but did not get overseas. He met his wife, a tiny brunette, at an air base in Mississippi. They were married in 1945. The Spillanes have two small children with whom the father enjoys tumbling around on the floor.
He calls his place, up tho Hudson River near Newburgh, Little Bohemia. It is usually full of Spillane’s buddies. He has a gift for making fiercely loyal friends. Some of these have offered to beat up critical book reviewers, but Spillane holds them off. They hang around drinking Spillane’s beer and sending out to the Texas Red Hot restaurant in Newburgh for frankfurters drowned in mustard, barbecue sauce and chopped raw onions.
Spillane drives a souped-up red custom convertible and subscribes to Hot Rod magazine. He is an outdoor calloused-hand type, who derives a greater aesthetic thrill from cleaning out a neighbor’s chicken coops than writing Hammer books. He has only two suits and two pairs of shoes. His winter domestic uniform is rubber boots, jeans and a lumberjack shirt.
He is a wealthy writer. His $2.50 editions pay him twenty-five cents a copy, but that is chicken feed. “I pay no attention to hard covers,” he says. The paperback editions pay him one half cent and Dutton one half cent per copy up to two hundred and fifty thousand; after that he and Dutton split a cent and a half per copy. Spillane’s paperback royalties, according to the economics of the hook business, keep Dutton out of the red. He and his original publisher have made about one hundred thousand dollars each from the quarter horrors.
Spillane doesn’t know how much money he has. His business manager, a Newburgh neighbor, gives him an allowance of a thousand dollars a month, pays his taxes and puts the rest into the Northland Construction Co., a firm Spillane founded.
Spillane has built himself a writing shop back of the house. It is a fir-sided hut with pine paneling inside, two desks and a drawing table for comicbook cartoonist friends. There is a bar and a bunk niche for the night-writing owner. The walls are decorated with skis, snowshoes and lurid oil
paintings which were used as covers on the Hammer paperbacks. Spillane has a collection of small arms and rifles, all kept unloaded. He has never shot a person or an animal. He refuses to shoot at the plentiful game running across his land.
One day his three-year-old daughter Kathy reached for an unloaded Mauser on a table. Spillane watched with fascination as the infant made three passes at it, got the gun and pulled the trigger. Spillane used it as the gimmick for his final murder in The Big Kill, in which an obliging baby shoots Hammer’s mistress.
Spillane says, “I am not an author. I’m a writer. I’m an entertainer. The Mike Hammer stories are antidotes for the anxieties of the world today.
I don’t write to see my name on the cover of some jerky literary hook. The only place I want to see my name is on a cheque.” The character of Mike Hammer was inspired by Spillane’s closest friend, Joe Gill. Gill is not a cop, but a Brooklyn pulp writer.
A plot development too outrageous for even a Hammer book occurred last summer in Spillane’s life. One evening three strangers knocked on his door. They were a local refrigeration engineer, his wife, and another housewife. They remarked that they had passed by on the road dozens of times but had not seen Spillane’s driveway before. They had no idea who Spillane was, but they had urgent news for him. The hospitable writer asked them in.
The callers were members of the Newburgh company of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This biblical sect has no clergy and no churches: the laymen preach and their meeting halls are called bethels. They apprised Spillane of their belief that Jehovah is going to destroy the world in this generation, as He did in Noah’s time. They confided in Spillane that none but a “select” group, Jehovah’s Witnesses, would survive. To rescue as many as possible before the deadline the Witnesses call door-to-door, live a life of disciplined devotion and operate a tract factory in Brooklyn almost as large as Signet hooks.
Had Spillane been Mike Hammer he might have shot the interlopers with a dumdum and enjoyed watching them croak out. Actually he was fascinated. The Witnesses left him a tract, Evolution vs. The New World—a plea against science and rationality. Spillane, who had dabbled with the evolutionary theory at Kansas State College, says, “After talking with the Witnesses I saw Darwin’s theory fall on its face. It was a farce.” He joined the Newburgh company of Continued on page 33
Mickey's Giving Murder a Bad Name
Continued from page 24
the Witnesses. He was baptized by j the rite of total immersion and became j a lay minister of the sect.
When I visited Mickey Spillane he ! picked me up at the Newburgh ferry ! in his soupy red convertible and apologized for being late. He had been digging a neighbor’s car out of a snowbank. He bought me two Texas red hots and got some more to take home to his ubiquitous house guests. At Little Bohemia we found two of them installing kitchen gadgetrv. One had a bloody head from going through a windshield of a truck. Spillane doctored him with a bottle of sherry. In the living room Spillane’s children were hopping in a play pen. The room looked like a toy store with its shelves swept off on the floor. Spillane asked Kathy, his three-year-old, to name me an animal in a picture book. She said it was a brontosaurus. Spillane said, “Kathy asked me the name of it and I told her.” He called to his wife, “Hey, Babe, we’ll be in the studio.” Í
There was a single-spaced foolscap manuscript in his typewriter. “I don’t make any corrections on copy,” he j said. “I sit down and write it and never look at it again. I don’t read j my books.”
He opened a file drawer and gave me some clippings of stories attacking the books. “Why should I be sore? People pay for my stuff; they can make fun of it. I get the old buck.”
Everything’s Going to Change
Spillane punctured two cans of beer and rolled back in his metal swivel chair. “You heard about the Jehovah’s Witnesses stuff?” I said I had. Spillane said, “Well, I am doing Witness work.
I go out door-to-door four nights a week bringing the truth. Friday nights I take Bible instruction.” He read me a passage from a pocket Bible he took from the pocket of his shirt.
“Since I became a Witness,” Spillane j continued, “the attacks on my books '• are worse. The Witnesses all over the | country have to defend me. People j tie me up with this Hammer character, j They pick on me personally. Hell, I’m a guy you can get along with. I’m polite to everybody. I’ll help anybody out.”
He brought out his Bible and held it in his hard brown hand. “I want to make a statement. My books are going to change. Since I got the truth, the Hammer books will be different.
“I realize my books have supported the moral breakdown of this generation. I write down the pattern of life young people live today. When they read my books they keep on doing it. The books bolster causes of moral breakdown.
“I’m going to change my writing style entirely, but keep the books just as exciting. I’m going to take the sex out and substitute such interesting characterizations that you won’t be able to quit reading. It’s a real challenge to me. My style has definitely changed. I’m revising my books God’s way to bring them up to par.
“I haven’t written a book since I became a Witness. The first book I wrote since I got the truth is in the typewriter there, Kiss Me comma Deadly.” He put the Bible back in his shirt and buttoned it down. He looked out the window and grinned near to grimacing. There was a hint of the old unregenerate Spillane. He said, “The books are going to be different.” He paused. “I’m cutting my throat. I know it.” it