I wrote about Mickey Spillane in National Review three years ago, on the occasion of the paperback reissue of six of his out-of-print mysteries:
You remember Mickey Spillane, right? No? Not to worry–it’s an age thing. If you were born before 1960, his name will definitely ring a bell. He wrote six of the biggest-selling detective novels of the 20th century, and Mike Hammer, their tough-guy hero, was for a time all but synonymous with the genre. They spawned two TV series and several movies of widely varying quality, among them Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), now regarded as a film-noir classic, and The Girl Hunters (1963), a curiosity in which Spillane himself played Hammer (ineptly, alas, though it’s a wonderfully wacky idea–try to imagine Dashiell Hammett swapping wisecracks with Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon). In addition, the “Girl Hunt” ballet in The Band Wagon is a Spillane send-up, with Fred Astaire as Hammer and Cyd Charisse as the leggy lady of mystery. That’s fame.
Back then, Spillane was considered the lowest of lowbrows, though he had his unlikely admirers, among them Kingsley Amis, who thought he was a better writer than Hammett or Raymond Chandler, and Ayn Rand, who said he was her favorite novelist since Victor Hugo. (I’m not making this up–it’s in her 1964 Playboy interview.) But most people who wrote about mysteries placed him several degrees beneath contempt. Chandler, not at all surprisingly, loathed Spillane, claiming that “pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this.”…
And now? Well, it’s not quite right to say Spillane is forgotten, but the truth is even worse: he’s out of print. Though he continues to grind out an occasional novel, the early Hammer books, which between them sold some 130 million copies, have long been unavailable, even in paperback. At a time when American intellectuals are obsessed to the point of mania with pop culture, the most popular mystery writer of the postwar era has become an unperson, in spite of the fact that he is alive, well, and available for interviews….
The Mike Hammer series, launched in 1947 with I, the Jury, appears at first glance to share many of the major themes and preoccupations of postwar noir. Like countless other noir anti-heroes, Hammer is a World War II vet who comes home to find that the city of his youth (New York, not Los Angeles) has become a dangerous place, crime-ridden and profoundly corrupt. He, too, has changed, for the experience of combat has aroused in him a dark love of violence, which he uses in an attempt to restore order to the chaotic world around him: “I had gotten a taste of death and found it palatable to the extent that I could never again eat the fruits of a normal civilization….I was evil. I was evil for the good.”
Most noir characters are vigilantes of one sort or another–they have to be, since they are functioning in a radically corrupt society–so what was it that put this one beyond the pale? Part of the problem was Spillane’s blunt, inelegant prose style, which is unfailingly effective but in no obvious way “literary,” just as his frame of reference is deliberately, even aggressively anti-intellectual. Whereas Philip Marlowe drank gimlets and read Hemingway (or at least made well-informed fun of him in Farewell, My Lovely), Mike Hammer drinks beer and doesn’t read anything at all. He is a regular guy who happens to pack a rod….
Spillane was writing for a generation of fellow veterans who spent their off-duty hours thumbing through paperbacks–thrillers, westerns, even the odd classic. They were accustomed to taking pleasure in the printed word. Now their grandsons go to the movies, or watch TV. Novels, even mysteries, are overwhelmingly read by and written for women. This is not to say that nobody’s writing regular-guy books anymore: they’re just not being read by regular guys. A no-nonsense crime novelist like Elmore Leonard is far more likely to appeal to eggheads like me than the working stiffs about whom he writes–I’ve never seen anybody reading a Leonard novel on the subway–whereas Spillane’s books were actually read and enjoyed by men who weren’t all that different from Mike Hammer. He may well have been the last novelist of whom such a thing could be said….
Spillane died yesterday at the age of eighty-eight. If you’re curious, these were his three best books.
To read his New York Times obituary, go here.