Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Movie Reviews for Writers: Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane


If you are a fan of pulp fiction or hard-boiled detectives in particular, Mickey Spillane isn't a name you're unfamiliar with. This documentary, written by Mickey's oft-time writing partner Max Allen Collins, can tell you all the reasons why that's true. 

"Mike Hammer was not the first fictional private eye," says Otto Penzler. "While Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were successful and well-known, they never approached the kind of success in terms of readership numbers or magnitude of recognition that Mickey had. If it weren't for Mickey Spillane creating the basic mold, the other writers would have had a hard time inventing it. 

"You were influenced by Mickey Spillane whether you've read him or not," says author Parnall Hall, "because every other private eye writer is influenced by Mickey Spillane."

As true as that is, I prefer the way author Miriam Ann Moore phrases the same idea: "Nobody ever hit a noun against a verb like Mickey Spillane." 

So, what can such a renowned writer teach us?

Write your own kind of moral code

Remember that you don't answer to anyone but yourself. You are not beholden to your church or parents' religion, or even the community standards in which you live. You do you, as the cliche goes. 

But, be warned, that kind of freedom can get you in trouble with that church, those parents, or that community.

Says Penzler, 

"In the mid-1950s an author named Frederick Wortham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent which primarily attacked comic books as supposedly a cause of juvenile delinquency. The only author he attacked aside from comic book writers was Mickey." 

And it wasn't just Wortham. Spillane was catching hell from lots of different critics, as the narrator expounds over clips from his movies. 

There was a storm of controversy over Spillane's strong sexual content and violent action scenes. Along with comic books and rock and roll, Spillane was blamed by commentators as a prime cause of juvenile delinquency. Spillane was blasted as a prime mover in America's moral decline.

 Loren Estleman, author of The Amos Walker Mysteries, explains futher.

We were a very Puritan Nation right up through the 1950s, and it was only at that point that the old standards and barriers began to fall, and I think it was through people like Mickey Spillane getting out there and effectively butting his head against the wall that made those walls collapse. It wasn't violence or sex for the sake of violence and sex. It was there to propel the characters and to propel the story along.

Mickey himself makes it clear that he was never one to shy away from sex or violence. "Sex and violence are punctuation marks in the story," he says. And not just those two topics either. He also didn't shy away from addressing politics in his work, according to Penzler: "He was not afraid to write about politics, and he was not afraid to write about politics from a point of view that was not necessarily the most popular in the say, Eastern establishment of New York publishing."

All of that way of thinking (and of writing) made its way into Spillane's work because it came from his background. He wasn't an ivory tower author, but a regular Joe who wrote. As he says:

It's kind of like a blue-collar existentialist where you're talking about people trying to think about what's right and wrong, but on the everyday level of the "Who's on my ass today?" or "Who's going to, you know, kill me?" or "What what kind of decision can I make uh to keep my myself alive and still try to do the right thing?" 

Look for opportunities

As a blue-collar writer, Mickey was always on the lookout for paying work. Never one to rest on his laurels of Mike Hammer's success, he also turned to short, two-page detective yarns in the backs of comic books. 

There was some postal regulation that in order for them to get mailing permits for the subscriptions on the comic books they had to have a certain amount amount of text material. Now you got 25 bucks a shot for two pages of these things. Now this usually would take about 10 minutes to write, 20 minutes to write, but at that time 25 bucks was a lot of money, and you could write four a day you're getting $100 a day when a hardworking man out there is making 35 a week.

(Personally, I'd love to track some of these.)

Something will define your work

Spillane knew his work well enough to know and accept the fact that there would be certain trademarks or habits would mark it as his own. He didn't try to fight those kinds of identifiers or re-invent himself to keep fans and critics surprised. He accepted both his style and any limitations and wrote the way he knew Mickey Spillane could write. 

One of those marks, as the narrator recounts over a scene from I, the Jury, was his endings, which began as early as I, the Jury. 

"The swift violence of Mike Hammer's retribution was matched only by Mickey Spillane's abrupt punch to the solar plexus endings." 

It's something Mickey was proud of. 

Baby, when you're writing a story, think of it like a joke with a great punchline. Get the great ending, then write up to it. 

The ending was a make-or-break moment for him, says Collins. "One thing Mickey was very clear on in his work and even enunciated was that the first chapter sells the book the last chapter sells the next book."

Spillane cared so much about the importance of his story endings that he once put $1000 on the line in a bet with his editor. 

I said a perfect book is written with the climax on the last word of the last page, so if you took the last word away you wouldn't know what the book was about. When I turned in Vengeance, I turned it in without the last word on the last page he just asked, 'What was that word? What was the word?' 'Give me a thousand bucks. He gave me a thousand bucks. I gave him the word."

Screw the critics

According to Penzler, Mickey was able to speak directly to readers so critics despised him. They not only thought of him as low-brow and common, but also vulgar in his writing. It was a sentiment Mickey didn't allow to get him down. In fact, he often turned in back in his critics faces. Says he:

I went to a tea party, if you can imagine me at a tea party, you know, but anyway there they had this funny little guy who was a very self-important fellow. He came to me, and he said what terrible commentary in the reading habit of the American public that you have seven, the seven top best sellers in America today. Whatt I could think of to say but was, well, you're lucky I didn't write three more."

He knew that critics didn't call the shots, not really. It's the readers. "Critics don't decide anything," he says. "Publishers don't decide anything. No, no, the public is the one who decides everything."

He was equally hard on the writers in that equation. "Writers don't have talent. Writers have mechanical aptitude."

Everything must be done with the reader in mind. 

Don't get full of yourself

But that idea of being tough on the writer kept him humble, kept him true to his blue-collar way of approaching his life and his work. Sure, he was a best-seller. He was a movie star even. But he never embraced the kind of highfaluting way of letting that think himself any kind of star. In fact, he didn't even like to refer to himself as an author.

I am not an author. I am a writer. A writer is on a day-today job all the time. He's writing. This is a job for him. He's making money to keep the smoke coming out the chimney. I don't want to go out and dig ditches every day of the week.

I think we could use a lot more Mickey Spillane's in this business. 

1 comment:

  1. Sean, if you're looking for Spillane's comic book two-pagers, here they are: