RARA-AVIS: Mickey Spillane Birthday

From: Victoria Lavagette ( lavagette@yahoo.com)
Date: 09 Mar 2005

American Public Media The Writer's Almanac for Wednesday, March 9, 2005

It's the birthday of crime novelist Mickey Spillane, the pen name of Frank Morrison, born in Brooklyn, New York (1918). He spent his childhood defending himself as the only Irish boy in a tough Polish neighborhood. His father worked in a hardware store, and it was there that Spillane saw a typewriter for the first time. He later said, "I would type on it... I loved the sound it made... [and] I knew I was going to be a writer."

As a high school student, he wrote for a local newspaper, and he covered bootlegging scams and other criminal activity. He would make carbon copies of the newspaper stories and turn one copy in as a writing assignment for school and get paid for the other. In 1940, he got a job as a scripter of comic books for Funnies, Inc. Other writers required a week to produce a Captain Marvel story while Spillane could write one in a day.

After he served in World War II as a fighter pilot, Spillane bought some land in the Catskill Mountains, where he lived in a tent while building his own house. He kept a typewriter on a wobbly table in that tent, and wrote at night by the light of a Coleman lamp. It was there that he wrote his first novel I, the Jury (1947), which introduced his famous detective Mike Hammer. It begins, "I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room. Nobody said a word. They stepped back politely and I could feel their eyes on me."

I, the Jury got terrible reviews when it came out in hardcover. The critic for the New York Herald Tribune called Spillane, "An inept vulgarian." The hardcover only sold 7,000 copies. But when the paperback came out, with one of the most sexually explicit covers ever printed on a book at that time, it sold a quarter of a million copies in one week, and it went on to sell about 9 million.

Spillane published six more books in two years, all best-sellers, including My Gun Is Quick (1950); The Big Kill (1951), and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952). He was known for including far more graphic sex and violence in his books than any other writer at the time. His work helped spark the pulp fiction craze of the 1950's, and he was one of the targets for a U.S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency.

Spillane never got as much respect as other detective novelists like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, but he sold many more books than they did. Six of his books are now among the 25 top-selling novels of the 20th century. It's estimated that there are about 130 million copies of his books in print.

Spillane was once asked why detective Mike Hammer is always depicted drinking beer. He said, "Mike Hammer drinks beer, not cognac, because I can't spell cognac."

And, "If you're a singer you lose your voice. A baseball player loses his arm. [But] a writer gets more knowledge, and if he's good, the older he gets, the better he writes."

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