Authors: Mickey Spillane

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer


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).{$I[A]Spillane, Mickey}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Spillane, Mickey}{$I[tim]1918;Spillane, Mickey}

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.

BibliographyBanks, R. Jeff. “Spillane’s Anti-Establishmentarian Heroes.” In Dimensions in Detective Fiction, edited by Larry N. Landrum, Pat Browne, and Ray B. Browne. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1976.Cawelti, John G. “The Spillane Phenomenon.” In Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.Collins, Max Allan, and James L. Traylor. One Lonely Knight: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984. Discusses Hammer’s controversial appeal in detail. Collins was an early champion of Spillane and has done much to rehabilitate the author’s critical reputation.Fetterley, Juddith. “Beauty as the Beast: Fantasy and Fear in I, the Jury.” Journal of Popular Culture 8 (1975): 775-782. Psychoanalyzes Hammer’s dilemma upon discovering that a sadistic murderer is a sexy woman.Haut, Woody. Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War. New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1995. Discusses Spillane’s antileftist appeal. This somewhat older work supplements the more recent Gumshoe America.Johnson, Richard W. “Death’s Fair-Haired Boy.” Life, June 23, 1952, 79ff. Presents Spillane’s personality.Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction, 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Spillane receives considerable attention in Knight’s chapter “The American Version,” in which he describes the influence of the pulps and early hard-boiled detective fiction on the genre.La Farge, Christopher. “Mickey Spillane and His Bloody Hammer.” In Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1957. Vicious early criticism of Spillane.McCann, Sean. Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000. Places Spillane amid sociopolitical movements democratizing but degenerating American culture. Hammer is seen as embodying American rugged individualism at a time when patriotism and hard justice were being subverted by liberalism.McLellan, Dennis. “Mickey Spillane, 1918-2006: A Simple Plot–Violence, Sex, and Royalty Checks.” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2006, p. A1. Obituary of Spillane looks at his background and early comic book writing and traces his evolution as a writer. Notes his reported indifference to critics and his devotion to his fans. Although he reportedly was a tough guy when young, Spillane’s conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness faith made him a much mellower man.“Mickey Spillane.” The Times, July 19, 2006, p. 55. This obituary of Spillane discusses his immense popularity and his lack of critical acclaim. Covers his background, his motivation to write, his speed of writing, and his divorces.Priestman, Martin. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Devotes a full chapter to the private eye. Hammer is described as “unidimensional” and a product of Cold War ideology.Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2005. Contrasts Mike Hammer with other private eyes of the period, particularly Philip Marlowe. Scaggs calls Hammer one of the “anti-intellectual” private-eye heroes, able to inflict and endure incredible physical punishment, and compares the urban setting of such characters with the lawless frontier of the American West.Silet, Charles L. P. “The First Angry White Male: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.” Armchair Detective 29 (Spring, 1996): 194-199. Reevaluates Spillane by reviewing his social background.Spillane, Mickey. Byline: Mickey Spillane. Edited by Max Allan Collins and Lynn F. Myers, Jr. New York: Crippen and Landru, 2005. A collection of very early Spillane short pieces. The critical commentary is by Collins and Myers, both longtime champions of Spillane.“Spillane, Mickey.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998.Symons, Julian. Mortal Consequences: A History, from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. London: Faber and Faber, 1972.Weibel, Kay. “Mickey Spillane as a Fifties Phenomenon.” In Dimensions of Detective Fiction, edited by Larry N. Landrum, Pat Browne, and Ray B. Browne. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1976.Winks, Robin. Modus Operandi: An Excursion into Detective Fiction. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1982.
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