boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Mickey Spillane, 88; his tales were gritty, graphic, and wildly successful

LOS ANGELES -- Mickey Spillane, the macho mystery writer who wowed millions of readers -- and dismayed many critics -- with the shoot-'em-up sex and violence of gumshoe Mike Hammer, died yesterday. He was 88.

Mr. Spillane died at his home in the South Carolina fishing village of Murrells Inlet. The cause of death was not disclosed.

The former comic-book writer and Army Air Forces veteran and Brooklyn native arrived on the literary scene in 1947 with the publication of his novel ``I, the Jury," which introduced his tough-guy New York City private detective.

Hammer's wartime best friend has been found murdered as the novel opens, and he vows to find out who did it and let the killer have it the same way his pal got it, with ``a .45 slug to the gut, just a little below the belly button." The book concludes with what has been called the most infamous ending in hard-boiled fiction.

After discovering the killer is the seductively beautiful woman he has fallen for, Hammer plugs her with a .45 slug to her naked belly. The book's final three lines:

``How c-could you?" she gasped.

I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.

``It was easy," I said.

``I, the Jury" was blasted by the critics. Mystery authority Anthony Boucher called it a ``vicious . . . glorification of force, cruelty, and extra-legal methods." And the Saturday Review magazine denounced its ``lurid action, lurid characters, lurid plot, lurid finish."

For his part, Mr. Spillane let the critical barbs roll off him like Jack Daniels over ice.

``I pay no attention to those jerks who think they're critics," he proclaimed in one interview. In another, he said: ``I don't give a hoot about reading reviews. What I want to read is the royalty checks."

First published in hardback by E.P. Dutton, ``I, the Jury" did not become a worldwide phenomenon until it was released as a 25-cent Signet paperback. By 1952, 4 million copies reportedly had been sold.

Its success led to a dozen more Mike Hammer mysteries over the decades, including, in quick succession, ``My Gun Is Quick" (1950), ``Vengeance Is Mine!" (1950), ``One Lonely Night" (1951), ``The Big Kill" (1951), and ``Kiss Me, Deadly" (1952).

With Hammer, Mr. Spillane secured his place in the pantheon of such mystery greats as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But Mr. Spillane was said to have an edge over the more critically acclaimed creators of private eyes Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

As Otto Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York, told the Washington Post in 2001: ``While Hammett and Chandler were successful and well-known, they never approached the kind of success in terms of readership and recognition that Mickey has had."

Indeed, Mr. Spillane's success spawned a Mike Hammer radio show, a cartoon strip (written by Mr. Spillane) and three TV series, one starring Darren McGavin in the late 1950s and two starring Stacy Keach in the 1980s and '90s.

There also were a couple of Mike Hammer TV movies in the 1980s and a handful of earlier motion pictures, including Robert Aldrich's 1955 film noir classic, ``Kiss Me, Deadly," starring Ralph Meeker, and ``The Girl Hunters" (1963). In the latter, Mr. Spillane himself donned a trench coat and fedora to become the only mystery writer to portray his own fictional sleuth on film.

The stocky, 5-foot-8 writer with a bull neck and trademark crew cut had a theatrical flair for self-promotion. He played himself as a detective hired by wild animal trainer Clyde Beatty to solve a circus mystery in the 1954 film ``Ring of Fear," and he played a bestselling writer threatened with murder on a 1974 episode of ``Columbo." He also occasionally posed as Hammer on the covers of paperback editions of his mystery novels.

But Mr. Spillane achieved his greatest fame as a pop-culture icon when he spoofed himself, again outfitted in the traditional private-eye garb, in more than 110 commercials for Miller Lite beer from 1973 to 1989.

Mr. Spillane's celebrity status prompted a succession of fans to seek him out at his home in Murrells Inlet, just south of Myrtle Beach.

He once described pointing his shotgun at the pilot of a helicopter hovering overhead to give its tourist-passengers a close look at Mr. Spillane's house. ``He took off and never came back," Mr. Spillane told the Los Angeles Times in 1989, laughing at the memory.

But he typically welcomed fans -- at least those who approached by land -- and he was more likely to reach into an ice chest and offer an uninvited guest a cold beer.

``I have no fans," Mr. Spillane told the Washington Post in 1984. ``You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends."

Despite his wealth, Mr. Spillane was a man of simple tastes, who enjoyed fishing from his 24-foot boat and driving a Ford pickup truck that he called his ``Carolina Cadillac."

Living up to his colorful persona, he dove for buried treasure in the Florida Keys, once rode with moonshiners and revenue agents in Appalachia, raced stock cars, and toured as a trampoline artist with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. He was even shot out of a cannon.

But, contrary to his tough-guy image, Mr. Spillane was a father of four children and a Jehovah's Witness convert who has been described by journalists as being soft-spoken, affable, and articulate -- a man who spiced his conversations with phrases no more offensive than ``by golly," ``my word," and ``son of a gun."

``I'm actually a softie," he conceded in an interview with the Orange County Register in 2004, when he was nearly 86. ``Tough guys get killed too early."

The only child of an Irish-Catholic bartender father and a Presbyterian mother, he was born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn on March 9, 1918. He was given the saint's name Michael when he was baptized and his father thereafter called him Mickey.

Mr. Spillane grew up in a tough neighborhood in Elizabeth, N.J., and began writing as a teenager. He said he ``turned pro right out of high school," writing short stories for Collier's and other ``slick" magazines as well as ``pulps" such as Dime Detective.

After three years at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, he returned to his birthplace of New York and ultimately landed a job as a scriptwriter-assistant editor at Funnies Inc., where he proved to be the company's most prolific writer. Whereas other writers took a week to produce an eight-page story, Mr. Spillane churned out his stories for ``Captain Marvel," ``The Human Torch," and other titles in a single day.

Joining the Army the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mr. Spillane served as a cadet flight instructor in Florida and Mississippi and rose to the rank of captain. In 1945, he married the first of his three wives, Mary Ann, with whom he had his four children -- Kathy, Ward, Michael, and Caroline.

In 1946, with the comic-book business in a postwar slump and needing $1,000 to buy a parcel of land near the Hudson River community of Newburgh, N.Y., Mr. Spillane came up with a way to raise the money: Write a novel.

Inspired by Mike Danger, a two-fisted private-eye character he had developed for a comic book, Mr. Spillane began writing.

In what has variously been reported as either nine, 16, or 19 days, he completed ``I, the Jury."

While acknowledging that his books were the ``chewing gum of American literature," Mr. Spillane basked in his success.

``I'm the most translated writer in the world, behind Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorki, and Jules Verne," he'd say, pointedly adding: ``And they're all dead."

In all, Mr. Spillane wrote 53 books, which reportedly have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide, and include his Tiger Mann spy series. He also wrote a couple of children's books, including ``The Day the Sea Rolled Back," which won a Junior Literary Guild Award.

Mr. Spillane divorced his first wife in 1962 and later married actress Sherri Malinou, whom he also divorced. In 1983, he married Jane Rodgers Johnson, a fitness teacher 28 years his junior.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives