In 1946 comic-book writer Frank Morrison Spillane (1918 – 2006) needed $1,000 to buy land for a house, so he wrote I, the Jury in three weeks. Although editors at Dutton questioned its excessive violence and literary level, they thought the book would sell, so they published it. Sell it did – over eight million copies by 1995. Spillane has become, by his own and others’ estimates, “the most widely read and fifth most translated writer in the world,” having “sold two hundred million books.” 1
Spillane is best-known for his early novels, which reflect the gestalt of the Cold War in the U.S., and for his unabashed self-promotion, which made him a public figure. Reviewers deplored I, the Jury (1947) for its “vicious … glorification of force, cruelty, and extra-legal methods,” not to mention sexual stereotyping of women and violence against them. 2 However, as scholar Frederic D. Schwarz has written, the novel is also one of the first signs of “the darker side of postwar America.” 3 Spillane followed with Vengeance Is Mine(1950),One Lonely Night(1950), and The Big Kill (1951). The latter brings together the emphases of the early Spillane: the enemy is the Communist Party and, secondarily, all large organizations, all large cities such as New York, and all bad weather. R. Jeff Banks argues that “McCarthyism as a political philosophy” is Spillane’s modus operandi, but Kay Weibel writes that Spillane’s novels are really about the just-finished war: “The Spillane version of war, however, is a highly glamorized one, in which the impossibility of the hero’s defeat is always understood. Though the wartime ethic and wartime activities are retained, the wartime setting is altered.” The Spillane protagonist kills or maims almost everyone in the other army, until only one is left, to whom he delivers his credo. Significantly, this last person is usually a woman, and she must be killed, too.” 4
Mike Hammer is Spillane’s private eye. Unlike Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, he does not really solve crimes: he is the living embodiment of the Old Testament maxim “an eye for an eye.” He is a chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, quick-shooting, two-fisted, anti-culture emblem, who has his choice of aggressive women built on the Marilyn Monroe chassis. Other women – mothers, virgins, the domestic, flat-chested, intellectuals, or aesthetes – are repelled by Hammer’s confessions that he has killed. He usually attacks a stereotyped sex kitten, always lower class, which critics see as the narrative embodiment of widespread sexual double standards in the 1950s. Some scholars claim that because Hammer’s sexual trysts often follow acts of violence, they are stylized enactments of rape. 5
After his first seven Hammer books, Spillane stopped writing novels, reportedly because of his conversion by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. 6 However he may have halted because he had lots of money, a house on a South Carolina beach, and a full load of movie and television work. I, the Jury appeared as a movie in 1953 (United Artists) and there was a remake in 1981 (20th Century Fox); The Long Wait appeared in 1954, Kiss Me, Deadly in 1955, and My Gun Is Quick in 1957 (all by United Artists). “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer” premiered on television in 1958, but a second series “Mike Hammer,” starring Stacey Keach, reached a much larger audience during its initial run from 1984-87.7 Spillane appeared on television shows and in parodies of his own work during this period.
When Spillane returned to publishing with The Deep (1961)and The Girl Hunters (1962), readers snatched up his novels and even antagonistic critics mellowed. Anthony Boucher wrote “that it’s possible for even an old enemy of his, like me, to view him afresh and recognize that he does possess a certain genuine vigor and conviction lacking in his imitators.” 8 Spillane wrote fifteen more books, about half featuring Hammer, before taking another break. On a dare from his publisher he wrote two children’s’ books in 1979 and 1982. In 1989 he returned with another Mike Hammer, The Killing Man. He became a celebrity by appearing in beer commercials. The thirteenth Hammer novel, Black Alley, came out in 1996. Readers have been loyal. Seven of Spillane’s books are still among the top-selling fifteen fiction titles of the last fifty years. As the author himself has said,
“I’m the most translated writer in the world, behind Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorki and Jules Verne. And they’re all dead… I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends.” 9
1 Mickey Spillane, quoted by Julie Baumgold, in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 63, 417. Original in Esquire, August, 1995, 132. 2 Anthony Boucher, Contemporary Authors, Ibid. Original, San Francisco Chronicle, n.p., n.d. 3 Frederic Schwartz, Contemporary Authors, Ibid. Original: American Heritage, July-August 1997, 98. 4 Kay Weibel, “Mickey Spillane at a Fifties Phenomenon,” Dimensions of Detective Fiction, ed. Larry N. Landrum, Pat Browne, Ray B. Browne (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1976), quoted in Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 13, 526-27. 5 Ibid. 6 Contemporary Authors, 417. 7 Ibid. 416. 8 Anthony Boucher, Ibid. 418. 9 Mickey Spillane, Ibid., 418.