The Mike Hammer Collection Volume 1: I, the Jury; My Gun Is Quick; Vengeance Is Mine!
by Mickey Spillane
Published by New American Library
448 pages, 2001
The Mike Hammer Collection Volume 2: One Lonely Night; The Big Kill; Kiss Me, Deadly
by Mickey Spillane
Published by New American Library
528 pages, 2001
[Editor's note: Shortly after the death of Mickey Spillane, on July 17, 2006, the Los Angeles Times published an appreciation of the man who'd given the reading world tough-guy New York private eye Mike Hammer, written by Max Allan Collins. However, the Times published only part of his essay. Below, we offer the full goods, posted with the permission of the author.]
I'm 13 years old. On a family vacation, somewhere in the American heartland. Back home, at Cohn's Newsland, I've been eyeing the lurid covers of (and occasionally hiding behind a spinner rack to read in) Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels -- I, the Jury, which ends with a striptease ("And she was a real blonde!") and Kiss Me, Deadly ("The flames were teeth that ate, ripping and tearing!"). Back home I didn't dare a purchase. Here I risked One Lonely Night, with its cover of a mostly nude damsel, her wrists bound, hanging helpless.
"How old are you?" the vendor asks.
"Are you sure?"
I throw down 35 cents, and soon am devouring fever-dream prose in the backseat of a Pontiac. The vacation, I forget. The ride of the Spillane novel stays with me.
1947. Mickey Spillane, former fighter pilot, is one of many World War II vets having a tougher time than promised in the glorious postwar world. He's worked Gimbel's basement, selling neckties. Before the war he'd written comic books (Captain America, Submariner), but the market has dried up some. And nobody wants his private-eye comic, Mike Danger. He has a new wife and a chunk of land in upstate New York. He pitches a tent and pounds out a harder-hitting, sexier prose version of the comic book. He knows a guy who knows a guy at E.P. Dutton, and his nine-day wonder -- I, the Jury -- winds up in an editor's hands. The editor finds it in poor taste but possibly commercial, and there is already reprint interest from Signet Books, whose sexy Erskine Caldwell paperbacks are doing pretty well. Dutton takes a chance.
I'm 18 years old. A senior in high school. I've written three novels in the style of Mickey Spillane, my literary hero, and have received numerous rejections but also encouragement from editors who don't know I'm a kid. I have collected everything of Mickey's I can get my hands on -- all the novels in first edition, buying the new ones (The Girl Hunters in 1961 is the first Mike Hammer after a long wait since Kiss Me, Deadly in 52). I've gathered Spillane stories in issues of Manhunt and Cavalier, 50s mags rooted out in vile second-hand shops from Chicago to New York (on vacations again!), making my Iowa parents question my sanity. I have written Mickey Spillane perhaps 30 fan letters. He has never responded.
I, the Jury comes out in paperback in 1948 and is the biggest sensation in the history of mystery. Mickey, whose second Hammer book, The Twisted Thing, was initially rejected by Dutton, is now that publisher's fair-haired boy ("Death's Fair-Haired Boy," according to Life magazine). His sales soon surpass Caldwell's, rocketing into the millions. The vigilante tactics of Mike Hammer are reviled by liberal critics, while the (then) extreme sexual content riles conservative commentators. Spillane laughs it off, but perhaps feels the sting. Hollywood calls and producer Victor Saville makes movie versions that the author despises and the public tolerates -- one, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), achieves the status of a classic film noir. There's a comic strip, a radio show, and Darren McGavin plays Hammer in a late 50s TV series. Mickey, hammered by the critics, takes time off to star in a movie for John Wayne (Ring of Fear, 1954), tour with Clyde Beatty's circus, deep-sea dive, race stock cars, fly jets. Along the way he becomes a Jehovah's Witness.
I am 22 years old, taking my MFA at the Writers Workshop at Iowa City under such fine writers as Richard Yates, Walter Tevis, and Seymour Krim. Yates, amused but tolerant, encourages my pursuit of smart pulp fiction; others are not so tolerant. I persist, and along the way write a paper comparing the film and novel versions of Kiss Me, Deadly and, when told to write a thesis on a major American writer, choose Mickey Spillane. Krim loves my audacity, and when my first novel [Bait Money, 1973] sells while I'm still in the Workshop, my stock rises. Though dozens of prior letters have gone unanswered, I write Mickey and send him my first book, and he finally responds, welcoming me to the club.
Mickey doesn't write much between 1952 and 1960, just some novellas and film scripts. In the early 50s, to meet the demand for the sexy, hard-hitting style of fiction he created, Spillane's distributor, Fawcett, decides to launch a line of paperback originals (prior to this, paperbacks were chiefly reprints of hardcovers). In the late 50s, Blake Edwards creates the clever Hammer imitation Peter Gunn and sparks a private-eye craze on television. The Hammers continue selling despite Mickey's silence, and by the beginning of the 1960s, seven of the 10 bestselling books of all time are his (and he has only written seven). As a stopgap till Mickey starts writing books again, his paperback publisher, Signet, publishes a Spillane-influenced series of British spy novels, presenting "the English Mike Hammer," James Bond.
I'm 33. The 1981 mystery fan convention, Bouchercon, will be held in Milwaukee; Mickey is the special guest. The convention organizers ask me to be their liaison with Mickey, since I'm "the Spillane guy." I agree, and the night before have a sleepless night, worrying that my hero will be a monster, that I'll be stomped under his feet of clay. At the con, I'm taken to meet Mickey at his hotel room.
"Mickey, this is Max Collins, he's ..."
"I know Max! We go way back! We been corresponding for years!"
I say, "Right Mickey -- one letter from you, one hundred letters from me."
We are immediate friends. A few months later, I'm sitting in his outdoor bar at Murrell's Inlet, South Carolina, when he flirts with a neighbor named Jane Rodgers, a beauty contest winner who flirts right back. She's gonna be the next Mrs. Spillane, Mickey predicts to me. He's right, as usual.
In the 1960s and 70s Mickey roars back with more Mike Hammer novels, a movie in which he plays his own famous hero (his acting gets raves), and some bigger, blockbuster-style novels, including the outrageous The Erection Set. He begins an incredible run of 18 years doing Miller Lite commercials, spoofing himself as Hammer next to his lovely "doll" (Lee Meredith of Producers fame). He writes an award-winning children's book (The Day the Sea Rolled Back, 1979). He forms a partnership, after a casual meeting on an air flight, with Jay Bernstein, who produces numerous Hammer TV movies as well three successful series, all starring Stacy Keach. By the 90s many critics are reappraising Mickey, and finally the Mystery Writers of America votes him in as a Grand Master. Without him and Mike Hammer, there would have been no Dirty Harry, no James Bond, no Sin City.
I am 45. I'm in Florida for the launch of the Mike Danger comic book, which I'm writing after my friend Mickey and I have developed a science-fiction version of his hero. My wife and I are walking along the beach. Ahead of us are two kids -- Mickey Spillane, 77, and Nathan Collins, 11. Mickey and Nate are laughing and teasing each other, Mickey bumping into him, Nate bumping back, the bigger kid telling the littler one how to eat worms. They are laughing and it echoes off the water -- hear it? | August 2006
Max Allan Collins, the author of the graphic novel Road to Perdition, was also the writer/director of the 1998 documentary Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane, featured on the DVD Shades of Noir. Spillane appeared in two of Collins' indie films (Mommy and Mommy's Day) and together they co-edited four anthologies of crime fiction. Collins' latest novel is The Last Quarry (Hard Case Crime). He lives in Iowa with his writer wife, Barbara. Their son, Nathan -- Spillane's godson -- is pursuing post-grad studies in Japan.