KILLERS AND CURVES
Mickey Spillane is dead.
So let’s cut to the chase.
Spillane was one of the best crime writers in the business. I’m talking top
six-pack. Hands down, and no goddamned argument is ever going to overturn that
Let’s explore a little of the
why Spillane is so important. In his chosen genre of writing, the modern
American detective story, Mickey pushed the story form and content further than
his predecessors or peers, and finally gave the public what they wanted: killers
& curves. In fact, Spillane’s flavor of mystery was so popular that the direct
to paperback market was created just to accommodate the hungry demand for more
Spillane-like books. The pulp paperback was born! Now people could carry Mike
Hammer in their back pockets, purse, or hide him gently inside their underwear
However, it’s necessary to take
a quick look back at the genesis of the genre to witness what came first, so we
have a clear understanding of what Mickey actually accomplished.
The detective genre begins in
1841 with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The detective is
Auguste Dupin, and while not yet what you’d imagine in terms of a fully realized
mystery detective—he was the first (that we know of) to “deduce” a crime in the
classic whodunit scenario. Dupin was the cerebral archetype that would lead to
Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes in 1887. Holmes of course was
also cerebral in his nature and solved crimes with the tools of logic and
deduction. Holmes (and Holmes impersonators) would dominate the genre for years.
Then came Hammett. Dashiell
Hammett, drawing on his real life background as a Pinkerton operative, brought
the mystery detective to the “mean streets.” The hardboiled dick came alive in
the form of the Continental Op in the 1929 novel Red Harvest. Now the
American detective genre was in fact truly and fully realized—and even more so
with his creation of detective Sam Spade for The Maltese Falcon—but by
1934, after writing The Thin Man, Hammett quit.
Well, that’s subject for a
Hammett article, and we’ll tackle that some other time.
Luckily, ol’ Raymond Chandler
came along and picked up Hammett’s smoking gun and aimed it true to target.
Chandler began just before Hammett left the building. Ray’s first story was
published in Black Mask in 1933 and his novel, The Big Sleep,
starring detective Phillip Marlowe, was published in 1939. In Chandler’s
own words (from a letter to a friend): “We owe Hammett everything.”
The detective genre was growing from each man’s effort of punching the gut of
modern writing and squeezing the blood from the pages. Hammett and Chandler saw
us through the 1930s with hundreds of imitators, but truly no other innovators.
Until Mickey Spillane.
In 1946, Mickey Spillane gave the world I, the Jury and the landscape of
detective fiction has never been quite the same. Finally, someone had given the
reader what they wanted.
Sex & violence?
And Spillane delivered the goods.
this was the late 1940s, and by today’s standards, the Mike Hammer novels were
very tastefully done and not really offensive at all. They might even sound
cliché as you read them today, the tough no nonsense language (often compared to
Hemingway)—but please understand the words aren’t cliché if your reading the guy
who popularized the phrasing. Finally we had a writer who wasn’t afraid to spice
the dish while cutting out a lot of the unnecessary fat, narration, or overly
pretzeled “mystery” plotting.
Ernest Hemingway had helped kill the tedious descriptive Victorian language
plaguing novels. He wrote short, powerful, declarative sentences that carried
maximum impact when stacked up all together in a book. Spillane obviously took
notice and brought this clear-headed sense of writing to the detective genre. He
wrote books that the average man and woman could read and enjoy. And they did.
Spillane became one of the most successful writers of all time. Even today, he’s
a household name, known by millions of people—many of whom at this point have
never even read one of his books. If nothing else, they know the TV shows, which
never did Spillane or Mike Hammer justice, but they were fun, and that was okay
with Mickey. Spillane made no bones about being popular and attributed his
success to doing his job well. He was unpretentious and that remained one of the
most likable aspects of Mickey’s personality. He claimed he wasn’t an author,
but a writer. He said it many times. Authors were akin to artists. Writers were
people who worked for a living and good writers actually sold their books. Plain
and simple. “If the public likes you,” said Spillane, “you’re good.”
I’m sure that must give Stephen King at least some comfort. And, when you think
about it, was he wrong? If millions of people like what you do—could they all
possibly be wrong? Only from a “high art” or “highbrow” point of view. You can
argue that Spillane wasn’t as poetic or witty as Hammett or Chandler and that
would be true, but it also doesn’t matter. He may not have been as artful as
some, but he did the job, and he did it well. Better than most.
One very important writer’s aspect that I like to share about Spillane is that
he nailed “premise” down quicker and better than ANY writer I have ever read.
And he did it in his first novel. Whenever I talk about a book having a good
solid premise I always give I, the Jury as the best example.
Mike Hammer stands over the recently murdered body of his friend Jack and gives
the following declaration:
“Jack, you’re dead now. You can’t hear me any more. Maybe you can. I hope so. I
want you to hear what I’m about to say. You’ve known me a long time, Jack. My
word is good just as long as I live. I’m going to get the louse that killed you.
He won’t sit in the chair. He won’t hang. He will die exactly as you died, with
a .45 slug in the gut, just a little below the belly button.”
And Hammer is as good as his word.
He follows through.
And he delivers the goods.
Bottom line, Spillane is good reading. He entertains. He keeps you turning the
pages. He makes you smile, maybe laugh, hopefully gasp, and hey, that’s more
than good enough for me.
Rest easy, Mickey, and thank you for telling it true.
Bradley Mason Hamlin
Sacramento, California, July 2006
For more Mickey Spillane see
the tribute page at myspace: