Mickey Spillane

Author of 'I, the Jury' and other million-selling novels featuring the violent vigilante cop Mike Hammer
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Frank Morrison Spillane (Mickey Spillane), writer: born New York 9 March 1918; married 1945 Mary Ann Pearce (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1962), 1965 Sherri Malinou (marriage dissolved), 1983 Jane Rodgers Johnson; died Murrells Inlet, South Carolina 17 July 2006.

Mickey Spillane was 1950s pulp fiction. His vicious, violent detective Mike Hammer was the dark side of those detectives-with-honour Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. In 13 paperback novels, Spillane revolutionised the crime market, making a fortune in the process and leaving as a legacy one of the all-time great movie adaptations - Robert Aldrich's delirious, apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Derided by Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway, Spillane stuck to the commercial line: "I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends."

He was born Frank Morrison Spillane in 1918 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a Catholic bartender, John J. Spillane, and his Protestant wife, Catherine. Michael was his saint's name, and his family called him "Mickey". He grew up in neighbouring Elizabeth, New Jersey, graduating in 1935 from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. At Fort Hayes State College, Kansas, he excelled in swimming before dropping out and moving back to New York. He worked as a lifeguard in Queens but, a keen reader - Alexandre Dumas had been one of his favourite authors when growing up - he also began writing for magazines, then moved on to comics.

Spillane began writing in the mid-Thirties, mostly for pulp magazines and comics. His uncle was a policeman, so he was always interested in cops, and he developed a private detective called Mike Danger. He was apparently paid $12 for a block of copy and could do as many as 50 blocks a day.

When the Second World War broke out, after a stint selling ties in Gimbel's department store, he joined the US Army Air Force, training pilots and flying combat missions. At the end of the war he resumed his comic-book work and - bizarrely - had a job as a circus trampolinist. He even, apparently, worked as a federal agent and, perhaps, got two bullet wounds and a knife wound in the process.

In 1945 he had met and married his first wife, Mary Ann Pearce. When he returned to New York, the story goes that he needed $1,000 to buy some land to build a home. In Mike Danger, he had what he felt was the prototype cop. He changed Danger's name to Hammer and in something between nine days and three weeks (legends differ) wrote I, the Jury.

Spillane sent it to Dutton, who saw it as a paperback possibility, and published it in 1947. Its success helped to make the paperback a force in fiction - so much so that the novel was referred to in the 1953 Fred Astaire movie The Band Wagon. Spillane, a professional writer if there ever was, produced five more Hammer novels between 1950 and 1952, as well as The Long Wait (1951, which sold three million copies in a week). Although the sixth Hammer novel, The Girl Hunters, did not appear until 1962, he would continue the series until Black Alley (1996) in which Hammer revealed an unsuspected liking for Wagner. Spillane's 13 Mike Hammer novels sold in total over 100 million copies around the world.

The novels were hardly complex. There was good (conservatives) and evil (Commies). There were men (superior) and women (inferior). There were racial stereotypes too. Mike Hammer was a violent - some would say sadistic - vigilante, but pulp readers responded to him.

After the success of the first novel, Spillane's life had changed markedly. In 1951 he became a Jehovah's Witness. In 1954 he moved to a South Carolina of tobacco, cornfields and deserted beaches. (He lived in the same home in Murrells Inlet for 35 years - it was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.) In the Fifties he spent his time writing, boating and fishing - and working as a circus performer. He was shot out of a cannon and in 1954 appeared in the circus film Ring of Fear.

In the Sixties he also had success with a series of spy novels featuring Tiger Mann, who worked for an espionage organisation funded by a radical right-wing billionaire. Mann made his first appearance in Day of the Guns (1964).

Spillane went for long stretches without writing - or needing to. He made a distinction between authors and writers - writers, as far as he was concerned, were authors who sold. He was a self-publicist: he featured on the covers of the novels, starred as Mike Hammer himself in a 1963 film version of The Girl Hunters and was a staple of Miller Lite beer commercials for over a decade. His second wife, the actress Sherri Malinou, was the model for several of the later Hammer book covers. He married for a third time, in 1983, to Jane Rodgers Johnson, a former Miss South Carolina nearly 30 years his junior. In the mid-1990s he returned to comic books by co-creating a futuristic version of Mike Danger.

Aside from his massive success, Spillane will be remembered for one of the most famous endings of any novel. In I, the Jury, the beautiful but no-good Charlotte Manning performs a striptease to dissuade Hammer from killing her. He shoots her anyway. As she's dying, Manning says: "How could you?" Hammer replies, "It was easy."

Peter Guttridge

Comments