Mickey Spillane (spuh-LAYN) is one of the best-selling detective fiction writers in the history of world literature. He was once listed as the author of seven of the ten best-sellers in the United States. He was born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn, the only child of an Irish Catholic bartender and a Presbyterian mother. His father nicknamed him Mickey. An inveterate reader, Spillane boasted that by age eleven he had read all the works of Alexandre Dumas, père, and Herman Melville. Spillane attended Brooklyn’s Erasmus High School (1935-1939) and briefly studied (1939-1940) at Kansas State Teachers College (now Fort Hays State University).
While working at Gimbel’s Department Store during the 1940 Christmas season, Spillane met Joe Gill, whose brother, Ray, was a comic-book editor. He hired Spillane to be a scriptwriter and assistant editor. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, Spillane enlisted in the Army Air Forces, earned his pilot’s wings, and trained fighter pilots in Florida and Mississippi. He was honorably discharged as a captain in 1945.
In 1945 Spillane married Mary Ann Pearce; the couple would have four children. Back in Brooklyn, he and the Gill brothers started a comic-book factory. For money to build a block house and garage on land he owned outside Newburgh, New York, he wrote I, the Jury, in–he boasted–nine days. He received one thousand dollars as initial payment. Mike Hammer, its brutal private-eye hero, was based on Mike Danger, Spillane’s comic-book creation. The novel, combining sadistic violence and easy sex, became a postwar best-seller, and Spillane’s career was launched. Five more Hammer novels soon followed, ending with Kiss Me, Deadly and interrupted by The Long Wait, Spillane’s first non-Hammer novel. In it, Spillane employed a plot chestnut: amnesia. In these thrillers, as well as in his later fiction, the hero outwits communists; the Mafia; sneaky Asians and Middle Easterners; inept United Nations, Central Intelligence Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents; crooked politicians and policemen; and homegrown criminals and deviants. Velda, Hammer’s gorgeous, pistol-packing, brunette secretary, helps professionally but never sexually.
In 1952 Spillane, persuaded that the theory of evolution was incorrect, became a Jehovah’s Witness. In 1953 a British filmmaker paid him $250,000 for permission to produce I, the Jury, The Long Wait, Kiss Me, Deadly, and My Gun Is Quick, based on his novels. Spillane wrote new comic strips, stories for magazines catering to male readers, and the (uncredited) script for the 1954 film Ring of Fear, in which he played a circus detective. It was produced by actor John Wayne, who was so pleased he gave Spillane a Jaguar. In 1954 Spillane moved to Murrell’s Inlet, south of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In 1958 to 1959 he authorized a seventy-eight-episode television series titled Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, starring Darren McGavin. In 1962 Spillane published The Girl Hunters, in which Hammer resumes work stalled by a seven-year alcoholic binge; flew his own P-51 Mustang from South Carolina to New York and Florida to supervise the filming of his novels; and got divorced. In 1963, he starred as Hammer in his own screen adaptation of The Girl Hunters.
Spillane married Sherri Malinou, an actress, in 1964 and continued writing Hammer novels as well as those featuring heroes who were more sophisticated versions of Hammer. Tiger Mann, foolishly named, was Spillane’s overt response to the popularity of James Bond, hero of British spy-story writer Ian Fleming’s novels. Tiger, who appears in Spillane’s Day of the Guns, Bloody Sunrise, The Death Dealers, and The By-Pass Control, is smoother than Hammer but less suave than Bond. Spillane capitalized on his own macho photogenic qualities by appearing in television commercials for Miller Lite beer from 1973 to 1989.
For The Killing Man and Black Alley, Hammer blockbusters, Bantam paid Spillane $l,500,000 each. The Erection Set and The Last Cop Out are noteworthy as Spillane’s offerings that come closest to pornography. The first, provocatively titled, concentrates on sadistic depravity. The second sympathetically portrays a dirty police officer, obviously a product of Spillane’s disgust at leftists’ alleged hamstringing of law enforcement agencies in the early 1970’s.
Spillane responded to persistent criticism of his violent plots by writing two children’s novels. The Day the Sea Rolled Back involves two young boys’ search for exposed treasures on the ocean floor. It won a Junior Literary Guild Award. In The Ship That Never Was, the same boys outwit murderous adults and rescue a princess. Beginning in 1982 Spillane resumed his sporadic relationship with comic-strip publishers.
In 1983 Spillane divorced again and married Jane Rodgers Johnson, a former Miss South Carolina twenty-eight years his junior. That same year he received long overdue recognition when his peers honored him with the Private Eye Writers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Television audiences welcomed the return of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1984-1987), starring Stacy Keach. In 1995 Spillane received the Mystery Writers of America’s Short Story Award. Mickey Spillane, uniquely popular with the masses as one of the most significant developers of tough-guy crime fiction, proved to be uniquely popular, with 200,000,000-plus copies of his works in print.