Lawrence Block

spillane_block“Mickey would tell you he wrote the books for money, and I’m sure he did. But those first seven books had a drive and energy he never entirely recaptured... I think it’s safe to say that he needed to write them for reasons having little to do with dollars and cents.”

A signed photo from Mickey Spillane (center) to Lawrence Block which was taken at the Edgar Allan Poe Awards Banquet in 1995, the year that Spillane received the Grand Master Award.

He was born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn, New York, on March 9, 1918, and grew up across the river in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He went to college briefly (and, I have to say, improbably) in Hays, Kansas, and worked as a lifeguard and a circus trampoline artist, among other things, before enlisting in the Army Air Corps the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But you don’t need me to tell you that. You can do what I did and find it on Wikipedia.

And therein lies my present dilemma. I began writing these columns in order to share some personal recollections of writer friends who had passed on, stories which were mine—and sometimes mine alone—to tell. I haven’t been doing this all that long, and already I find myself running out of dead friends.

Which is fine with me, as I’d always rather have a living friend than a subject for a column. But this month it leaves me looking to write something about a man I didn’t know all that well.

I certainly didn’t know him nearly as well, or for nearly as long, as Max Allan Collins, who idolized Mickey Spillane the writer and became a very close friend of Mickey Spillane the man; since Mickey’s death in 2006, Al has served as Mickey’s literary executor, skillfully and sensitively preparing some unfinished manuscripts for publication, starting with a final Mike Hammer novel, The Goliath Bone, in 2008. (Since then we’ve had The Big Bang, with Kiss Her Goodbye and The Consummata due this year.)

Al’s recollections of Mickey would very likely fill a book, and I can only hope that someday they do just that. But perhaps mine, fleshed out with some thoughts and observations, may at least fill a column.

* * *

My favorite Mickey Spillane story is one I heard a year or two before I ever met the man. More than 20 years ago, several crime novelists were invited to appear for a radio panel discussion of their craft. I wasn’t one of them, but Donald E. Westlake was, and it was he who told me the story. Whoever the panelists were, they nattered back and forth until their hour was up, and then, when they were off the air, Spillane said, “You know what? We never talked about money.”

If I remember correctly, Long John Nebel was the host. Whoever the lucky fellow was, he winced at this, and steeled himself to explain to the creator of Mike Hammer that there was no money budgeted to pay the panelists.

But that wasn’t what Mickey was getting at.

“We didn’t talk about money,” he said, “and money’s very important. Let me give you an example. Back when we first moved down to South Carolina, I just relaxed and took it easy for a while, and every now and then it would occur to me that it would be fun to write a story. But I didn’t have any ideas. I would take long walks on the beach, I would sit and think, but I could never manage to come up with an idea.

“Then one day I got a call from my accountant. ‘Mickey,’ he said, ‘it’s not desperate or anything, but the money’s starting to run low. It might be a good idea to generate some income.’

“So I thanked him and hung up the phone, and I took a walk on the beach, and bang! Just like that, I started getting ideas!”

Mickey wasn’t being cynical. What he was doing, it seems to me, was telling a plain truth about the mechanics of artistic creativity. Necessity, for the writer as for anyone else, is very much the mother of invention. We get ideas because we feel a need for ideas, and when that need vanishes the well of ideas goes dry—until it’s needed once again.

spillane_ithejuryThis is not to say that it’s only money that makes the mare go. When I began writing I certainly hoped to get paid for it, but self-expression and ego gratification were far more powerful motivators. And I’d guess that was true at least in part for Mickey—for a certain number of years. And then it wasn’t.

Mickey published I, the Jury, in 1947. It didn’t do much as a Dutton hardcover, but sold like crazy once it went into paperback. Then he wrote and published six more novels between 1950 and 1952—My Gun Is Quick, Vengeance Is Mine!, The Big Kill, The Long Wait, One Lonely Night, and Kiss Me, Deadly. All but The Long Wait feature Mike Hammer, and it’s these seven books that (at least as of 1980) were among the 15 bestselling American novels of all time.

Mickey would tell you that he wrote the books for money, and I’m sure he did. But those first seven books had a drive and energy he never entirely recaptured in later years, even as his later books never matched them in popularity. I think it’s safe to say they came out of his inner self in a way that later books did not, that he needed to write them for reasons having little to do with dollars and cents.

Then he moved to Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, and stopped writing. Then the accountant called and he started in again.

* * *

I was probably in Mickey’s company half a dozen times over the last ten or 12 years of his life. On several of those occasions I heard him say the same thing: “I’m not an author. I’m a writer.”

I wanted to ask him what the hell he meant. The distinction he drew was clearly not out of a dictionary. I knew what he was getting at, that author implied some sort of lah-di-dah ivory tower, full-of-oneself attitude, while a writer could be free of pretense, a solid regular-guy craftsman producing something for ordinary folks to read. Velvet collar versus blue collar, if you will.

Well, okay. The guy was Mickey Spillane, so I figured he could get away with saying something like that if he wanted to. But there was a chip-on-the-shoulder thuggishness to it that I found off-putting. It seemed a curious attitude for a guy who made a living making up stories and writing them down.

Maybe the critics’ barbs hurt, and this was his response.

Then a couple of weeks ago I found a quote from Colette, who was hardly a sterile academician herself, and I just loved the way it worked in juxtaposition with Mickey’s oft-repeated line. So for a while I used them both as a subscript for my email correspondence, and here’s how they look together:

“I’m not an author. I’m a writer.”
—Mickey Spillane

“Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

I don’t know that I read all of Mickey’s first seven books, but it’s possible. I was in high school when the Signet paperbacks came out, and that’s when I read them.

I thought they were okay. At the time, a lot of my reading was in search of sexual excitement and information, and Mickey Spillane had a reputation in that area, but even then it seemed a stretch to call the work "erotic." There was sometimes a sexual aspect to the stories and situations, and Mike Hammer surely had an eye for the dames, but it never got all that hot.

I never read Mickey after high school. There was a gap there, nothing came out between 1952 and 1961. I did pick up one or two of the later books, but found them tedious, and not worth finishing.

With the early books, you finished them. You might or might not like them, might or might not admire the way they were written. But you finished them.

* * *

Q: What do you get if you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with an agnostic?
A: Someone who rings your doorbell for no apparent reason.

It’s hard not to equate the diminished impact of the later work with Mickey’s emergence as a Jehovah’s Witness. He was converted sometime in the 1950s by someone who did indeed come to his door, and remained devoutly committed to the faith throughout his life.

He always denied that the books changed as a result of his religion. And indeed Mike Hammer’s code remains about the same, and the world of Spillane’s fiction is still divided into good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys deserve what’s coming to them, and damn well get it.

But something’s different.

* * *

And why did those first books hit readers as hard as they did? We can talk about their energy, and how they had more drive than later Spillane, but lots of Mickey’s contemporaries wrote tough books about driven, energetic characters. Many of them were superior stylists, too—for all that Ayn Rand, bless her heart, found a way to prove that Mickey was a better writer than Thomas Wolfe.

Two words: comic books.

Before he wrote novels, Mickey Spillane wrote for the comic books. His first prose fiction consisted of a slew of one- and two-page stories for the comics, and his hero, Mike Hammer, was originally intended as a comic-strip hero. The fast cuts, the in-your-face immediacy, and the clear-cut, no-shades-of-gray, good-against-evil story lines of the Mike Hammer books come straight out of the comic book world.

Mickey Spillane was writing something new—comic books for grown-ups.

The generation of readers who embraced Spillane had read comic books before they read novels. They were used to the pace, the frame-by-frame rhythm. And they took to Mike Hammer like a duck to a pool of dark red blood shimmering in the sickly yellow light of the streetlamp...

Sorry. I got carried away there for a moment.

* * *

spillane_mickeyMickey was made a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America in 1995.

Sixteen years later, it seems surprising that MWA waited so long. But that’s not how it looked at the time. The notion of giving him this award was hugely controversial, and a substantial proportion of MWA’s active membership regarded the whole notion as a travesty.

I was at a meeting, probably in the fall of 1994, probably at Bouchercon. If I remember correctly, it was an unofficial gathering of MWA people to consider the question. On one side, the pro-Spillane contingent argued that Mickey was enormously influential, that he had not only brought a whole generation of new readers to crime fiction, but that in so doing he had spawned the whole world of hardboiled paperback original fiction. Gold Medal Originals, it was suggested, owed their very existence to the new market Mickey and Mike Hammer had called into existence.

I couldn’t argue with that.

On the other side, the anti-Spillane crowd pointed out that, influential though they might well be, Mickey’s books were essentially crap. The plots were dumb, the characters lacked any semblance of depth, the underlying philosophy was brutish, and the writing itself was heavy-handed and crude. Yes, the books were popular—or had been, decades ago. But it was not MWA’s business to reward popularity. The marketplace did that. Our august organization gave out Edgars and designated Grand Masters in order to celebrate excellence, and these days it was hard to pick up a Mike Hammer novel and read it, let alone applaud its excellence.

I couldn’t argue with that, either.

The debate, as I remember it, was surprisingly reasonable and well-mannered. The nays didn’t shout too loud, because when all was said and done they liked Mickey, however little they thought of his work. And the yeas weren’t that boisterous, either; while one or two might have concurred with Ayn Rand, most seemed to be arguing that Mickey should get the award irrespective of the quality of his work.

Well, come April he showed up at the annual dinner and was made a Grand Master. And all the anti-Spillane arguments were like snow in an Arctic summer; they didn’t stop to melt, but sublimated, passing directly from a solid to a gaseous state. What, not give it to him? Who ever could have had an idea like that?

And I have to say he appreciated the honor. Well, why not? It came, after all, from the Mystery Writers of America.

If we’d been the Mystery Authors of America, it might have been a different story.

* * *

He was a hell of a nice guy. Did I mention that? It shouldn’t go unsaid. One hell of a nice guy.

A Mickey Spillane Reading List

Mike Hammer Novels
I, the Jury (1947)
My Gun Is Quick (1950)
Vengeance Is Mine! (1950)
One Lonely Night (1951)
The Big Kill (1951)
Kiss Me, Deadly (1952)
The Girl Hunters (1962)
The Snake (1964)
The Twisted Thing (1966)
The Body Lovers (1967)
Survival...Zero! (1970)
The Killing Man (1989)
Black Alley (1996)
The Goliath Bone (with Max Allan Collins, 2008)
The Big Bang (with Max Allan Collins, 2010)
Kiss Her Goodbye (with Max Allan Collins, 2011)

Tiger Mann Novels
Day of the Guns (1964)
Bloody Sunrise (1965)
The Death Dealers (1965)
The By-Pass Control (1966)

Other Novels
The Long Wait (1951)
The Deep (1961)
The Delta Factor (1967)
The Erection Set (1972)
The Last Cop Out (1973)
Something Down There (2003)
Dead Street* (with Max Allan Collins, 2007)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #120.