Monday, July 17, 2006

Mickey Spillane, Creator of Mike Hammer, Dies

Mickey Spillane, the creator of hard boiled detective Mike Hammer, died today at the age of 88. He wrote thirteen novels featuring Hammer, as well as a dozen other books.

Mickey Spillane was born Frank Spillane in Brooklyn on March 9, 1918. As an infant Spillane had the singular experience of being christened in two different churchs. His father was a Catholic, so he was christened with the middle name "Michael" in the Catholic Church. His mother being Protestant, he was also christened with the midlde name "Morrison." It would be the name "Michael" that would win out, however, so that he would forever be remembered as "Mickey."

Spillane began his writing career in comic books and pulp magaznes. He wrote stories for such characters as Captain Marvel, Captain America, and the Human Torch. His writing career was interrupted by World War II, when Spillane enlisted in the Air Corps. Once back in the States he created a new comic book character, detective Mike Danger. Comic book publishers initially rejected the character, and no Mike Danger stories would be published until 1954 when they were published in Crime Detector #3 and 4. The character would later be revived in comic books in the Nineties by writer Max Allan Collins.

In the meantime, however, Spillane would change the character's last name to "Hammer" and write a novel around him. Although it bombed in hardback, I, the Jury was a resounding success in paperback. Mike Hammer was very much in the tradition of hard boiled detectives. Where he differs from such characters as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, however, is that he is often brutal and almost always filled with rage. Where Spade or Marlowe might bend the rules at times, Hammer was not below outright breaking the law to see that justice was served. The success of Mike Hammer in print led to several movie adaptations (among them I, the Jury in 1953 and Kiss Me Deadly in 1955), three TV series (a syndicated Fifties series starring Darren McGavin, an Eighties CBS series starring Stacey Keach, and a Nineties syndicated series), a newspaper comic strip, and radio shows. Perhaps the greatest measure of the success of Mike Hammer is that it can be argued that the character was an influence on such future characters as Dirty Harry, Mel Gibson's character in Lethal Weapon, and many others.

Spillane wrote more than the Mike Hammer novels. He also wrote a dozen other books, among them The Day The Sea Rolled Back, a novel for young adults which won a Junior Literary Award. He has also been honoured with awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the Private Eye Writers of America.

Spillane was undeniably a controversial writer. The Mike Hammer novels were often accused of being overly violent, encouraging vigilantism, and misogynistic. Spillane was also an outspoken conservative and that conservativism sometimes showed up in his books. Spillane's Mike Hammer novels were never the darlings of the critics, who even disliked his writing style. That having been said, the Mike Hammer novels are a sort of guilty pleasure. They are set in a world that is utterly black and white, where there is a clear line between good and evil. What is more, evil doers always got their just deserts in the Mike Hammer series. While I must admit that I find much that is objectionable in the Mike Hammer books (and keep in mind that I am an afficanado of pulp fiction and hard boiled detectives), I cannot deny there is an appeal in books where there is a clear difference between good and evil, and where the bad guys always pay for their crimes in the end. While I know that I probably disagreed with Spillane on a good many things, I can't help but thing that the world would be poorer without his books.

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