On the 100th birthday of an American original, we recall the career, writing style, and surprising private life of Mickey Spillane, renowned for his brutal detective novels filled with sex and violence.
“I’m not a guy that takes any crap. Not from anybody,” detective Mike Hammer tells a suspect in the book Vengeance Is Mine. “I’ve had some punks tougher than you’ll ever be on the end of a gun, and I pulled the trigger just to watch their expressions change.”
Mickey Spillane’s fictional character, Mike Hammer, is one of the most lethal detectives in the genre. Over the course of five novels, he kills 58 people. (In one book, he mows down 40 of them — all communists — with a machine gun. Spillane’s publisher had to talk him down from 80.)
The hard-boiled detective genre was well established by the time Frank Morrison Spillane started writing in the late 1940s. But he ramped up the sex and violence to levels previously unseen in pulp fiction, starting with I, The Jury.
Critics had little good to say about this Mike Hammer adventure. “Spectacularly bad” was how the New York Times described it. The San Francisco Chronicle’s review said the book was “so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty, and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school.” The Saturday Evening Post referred to Spillane as the master of the “thud and blunder” thrillers.
Yet Spillane proved to be in tune with American readers in the post-war years. After a respectable 10,000 copies in hardback, I, The Jury sold an astonishing six million copies. His next book, Kiss Me, Deadly, became the first detective novel to land on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Mickey Spillane had originally wanted to develop a comic around a tough-guy detective named Mike Danger. Neither the comic book nor newspaper strip worked out, so he recast Mike Danger as Mike Hammer in a novel. Spillane claimed it only took him nine days to write I, The Jury. If so, they were among the most profitable nine days any writer ever spent, for they launched a 30-novel career with total sales around 225 million copies.
Spillane was aware of what book reviewers said about him, but didn’t care. He called himself a writer, not an author. “I don’t give a hoot about readin’ reviews. What I want to read is the royalty check,” he said. “I’m a money writer. I write when I need money.”
He once told an interviewer, “I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends.”
Spillane wasn’t necessarily obsessed with sex and violence. He said he simply wrote what his customers wanted to read. And in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, many readers wanted stories that made life, law, and morality straightforward matters. They appreciated his minimalist style, fast-paced plots, and graphic acts of violent revenge — often against communists.
Spillane’s success rested on his ability to shock readers. But by the 1960s, censorship had relaxed and a lot more writers were pushing the limits. And with the Cold War settling into a stalemate, communists lost much of their usefulness as villains. Yet Spillane kept writing, completing his last novel in 2003.
Surprisingly, there was little resemblance between the vengeful, violent, and promiscuous detective and his creator. Unlike Mike Hammer, Spillane neither smoked nor drank, and he was very serious about his Christian beliefs.
In 1952, Spillane became a Jehovah’s Witness and, for the next ten years, he gave up writing to witness to his faith. He helped build the Jehovah’s Kingdom Hall in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. He taught bible classes. And, like other Witnesses, went door-to-door sharing his faith.
In 1962, he returned to publishing with a new Mike Hammer book. Another 29 novels followed. Many featured his brutal detective hero in stories of sexual adventure and bloody vengeance. But Spillane remained a devoted Jehovah’s Witness until his death in 2006.