News of the Week: Amelia Earhart, the Laughing Alexas, and 100 Years of Mickey Spillane

Mystery Solved! (Again. Probably. Maybe.)

I did some extensive investigation — I used the search box at the top of the site — and I noticed that I do stories on Amelia Earhart’s disappearance almost every year. Someone finds some clue, some item, a mysterious photograph, and then they proclaim that they know what really happened to the aviator and her navigator Fred Noonan. Of course, when those new findings come out, there are just as many people who don’t believe the conclusions and can “prove” those findings are inaccurate.

The latest investigation involves human bones that were found on the island of Nikumaroro in 1940, three years after Earhart and Noonan vanished during their flight. University of Tennessee anthropology professor Richard Jantz says he’s “99 percent” sure that the bones are Earhart’s.

It’s worth noting that the professor didn’t examine the actual bones. Those were lost decades ago. His findings are instead based on the measurements of the bones recorded when they were found in 1940. Back then they were said not to be Earhart’s because others who examined them believed the bones came from a man. But the professor examined pictures of Earhart, and those photos, combined with the dimensions of the bones, convince him they belong to Earhart.

Please come back here next year around this time to hear the latest new findings on Earhart. Actually, you should be coming back here every week, so forget I said that.

The Laughing Alexas

Picture the scene: You’re at home alone, maybe eating dinner (it’s a Lean Cuisine night), the TV is off, and you’re just reading the paper as you eat. Everything is calm and quiet, when all of a sudden, your Amazon Echo starts laughing. You didn’t ask Alexa to laugh, you didn’t tell her a joke, and you didn’t say “Alexa, what is the opposite of crying?” She just randomly LOL’d.

Wouldn’t that make you just a bit uncomfortable?

That’s what’s happening in some homes. Amazon says they’ve figured out why it’s happening, but their explanation — the device thinks you’re telling it “Alexa, laugh,” even if you’ve said no such thing — doesn’t really make any sense. They’ve created a solution, which is to make Alexa reply only if you ask “Alexa, can you laugh?” and the laugh she responds with will be preceded by “Yes, I can laugh.” Of course, this solution doesn’t make much sense to me either, since it was laughing without anything at all being said to her. Maybe Alexa will simply decide to do what she wants. If she doesn’t like you for some reason, she’ll instantly order 25 cases of Funyuns for you and ship it overnight.

It’s not something I’m going to worry about though, since I don’t plan on buying an Echo. I don’t need more women laughing at me.

By the way, feel free to use the Laughing Alexas as the name for your band.

50 Years Ago

1968 was a tumultuous year for many reasons, including the presidential election. In this report from CBS Sunday Morning, John Dickerson looks back at the New Hampshire primary, where Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota took on another Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson:

100 Years of Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane was always a controversial writer. Critics will say his novels include an overabundance of sex and violence, but … well, actually they do. But he was master of what he did: tough, two-fisted pulp novels that are a kick to read. He always said that he wrote for readers, not critics. “What I want to read is the royalty check,” he once said. “I write when I need the money.”

This week marked Spillane’s 100th birthday, and Hard Case Crime has published the last novel that Spillane ever wrote, appropriately titled The Last Stand. And here’s Post Archive Director Jeff Nilsson on Spillane’s career and legacy.

Even fans of detective, noir, and action novels are divided when it comes to Spillane. Is it because he’s not “literary” enough? Is it because he once wrote a novel in two weeks because he needed the money to buy something? Is it because he has sold over 200 million books?

Bill Norris has a good piece at The Daily Beast on why we should reconsider the work of Spillane. I’m more of a Raymond Chandler fan, but I appreciate what Spillane did, and I love his “I’m a writer, not an author” attitude.

Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg

I know that looks like I fell asleep on my computer keyboard, but it’s actually the name of a lake in Webster, Massachusetts. It’s also known as Webster Lake, but that’s not as fun to say as Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. Here’s a report from WBZ in Boston on the lake and the history of the town, which is named after Daniel Webster and is the birthplace of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross:

The best part of doing this story is that it forces my editor to have to check the spelling of Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg several times.

RIP Stephen Hawking and Hubert de Givenchy

Stephen Hawking was an acclaimed physicist known for his work on black holes, relativity, and quantum mechanics. He was also the author of many books, including A Brief History of Time and The Grand Design, as well as the subject of the 2014 Oscar-winning movie The Theory of Everything. Hawking died Wednesday at the age of 76.

Since the early 1950s, Hubert de Givenchy designed clothing for some of the most famous women in the world, including Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Grace Kelly, and the Duchess of Windsor. He died Saturday at the age of 91.

Quote of the Week

“Your son’s debt to thank each individual guest is independent of how many stamps you will need to purchase — or how much time it will take him to pen the notes.”

Miss Manners, to a mother wondering if her son, who has messy handwriting, can type his thank-you notes instead

This Week in History

Frankenstein Published (March 11, 1818)

You can read Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel for free at Project Gutenberg, and here’s an interview with the most famous film portrayer of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff, from the November 3, 1962, issue of the Post.

Albert Einstein Born (March 14, 1879)

It’s fitting, in a way, that Stephen Hawking died on Einstein’s birthday. Here’s a 1929 Post interview with Einstein, in which he talks about why he thinks nationalism is the “measles of mankind,” what he would have done if he hadn’t gone into physics, and why imagination is more important than knowledge.

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Commuter Card Game (March 15, 1947)


Commuter Card Game
Constantin Alajalov
March 15, 1947

I used to commute to work on a train every single day. It was somewhat tedious — an hour trip into the city and then an hour back — but in some ways I enjoyed it. I got to read, maybe sleep a little, and talk to the other commuters I saw every day. A card game never broke out, though, as in this Constantin Alájalov cover. The conductor looks enthralled, too. I hope they don’t miss their stops.

Saint Patrick’s Day Recipes

Tomorrow is the day everyone celebrates the patron saint of Ireland, and those celebrations will undoubtedly involve food (and, well, liquid refreshment). Here’s a recipe for a traditional Irish Beef Stew, and here’s one for Irish Guinness Oatmeal Cake. And if you’ve never eaten Spotted Dog, here’s a recipe for that.

If you’re in doubt on what a St. Patrick’s Day food is, just color it green. That makes all food a St. Patrick’s Day food.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

Spring begins (March 20)

I had to shovel the sidewalk seven times three days ago, but spring supposedly begins on Tuesday.

National Agriculture Day (March 20)

All the cool kids call it Ag Day.

Mickey Spillane: American Master of Sex and Violence

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.

Featured image: Illustration by William A. Smith for The Saturday Evening Post, ©SEPS