Why you should care
Because tough-guy fiction is probably not all that fictitious.
It was simple. Pearl Harbor was bombed. Brooklyn-born, Jersey-bred Frank Morrison Spillane, aka Mickey, joined the Army Air Corps the day after. It was 1941 and he was 23 years old. Four years later, with the war having slammed shut, Spillane wanted to get married and buy a house. He was skilled in the scribbling department after knocking out stories for comic books in his spare time, so Spillane sat down to write a novel and earn a little down-payment scratch. Nineteen days later, he had finished I, the Jury.
When the book debuted in hardcover two years later, in 1947, it resonated so thoroughly with the cynicism and seethe of the postwar zeitgeist that all 6.5 million copies jumped off the shelves — in America alone.
Doug Grad, a literary agent and former editor at HarperCollins, explains that while people at the time may have acknowledged shell shock, no one yet understood post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. “Millions of servicemen returning from WWII, men who’d experienced a tremendous amount of violence and tough guys that didn’t put up with any BS,” Grad offers, “were hungry for something that reflected their mindset.”
It didn’t hurt that in person Spillane himself suggested nothing if not his signature tough-guy detective, Mike Hammer (he even played Hammer once in a movie). Big-boned and brawling, despite being a Jehovah’s Witness who didn’t smoke or drink, Spillane had a yeoman’s dedication to the craft. So dedicated that the subsequent years saw him cranking out 48 more books in rapid succession, which in turn led to a handful of films plus starring roles for Spillane in TV commercials predicated on his distinct place in the canon of two-fisted, knuckled-up fiction.
Excerpt from Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury
“Don’t worry, I don’t underrate the cops. But cops can’t break a guy’s arm to make him talk, and they can’t shove his teeth in with the muzzle of a .45 to remind him that you aren’t fooling. I do my own leg work, and there are a lot of guys who will tell me what I want to know because they know what I’ll do to them if they don’t. My staff is strictly ex officio, but very practical.”
Spillane’s short sentences, choppy delivery and film noir downbeats were so effective that even after his death, in 2006 at age 88, the literary stuff he pioneered has been used by so many others so often that it’s come to seem cliché. Most recently he was name-checked by Sin City creator Frank Miller, whose 2014 film A Dame to Kill For is all kinds of Spillane.
Spillane’s books have sold more than 225 million copies; by the time the 1980s rolled around, seven of his books were in the top 15 all-time best-selling fiction titles in spite of — or maybe because of — a critical response that was almost uniformly negative.
“He’s not the best writer in the world,” says Richard Herschlag, author of homicide thriller The Interceptor. “But he writes with an obvious passion for what he’s writing about — a welcome tonic to some of today’s weak shit. Spillane’s Mike Hammer was also a sort of precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and for that alone we owe Mickey a debt of gratitude.” And while many books don’t hold up to a second read, Spillane’s novels chronicling the near-psychotic-level “good” guy Mike Hammer don’t get old, no matter how purple the prose admittedly can be.
What he delivers is skin-crawly sex and unbridled violence. Which makes it perhaps unsurprising that one of his few supporters, Ayn Rand (curiously enough), ended up jumping off the good ship Spillane. His character’s amorality had finally gotten to her, of all people.
The supremely good-humored Spillane once said about his sales: “Hemingway hated me. I sold 200 million books, and he didn’t. Of course most of mine sold for 25 cents, but still. …”
Still. Hard-boiled. With a capital H. On every single, scabbed-up page.