The Prince of Pulp

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Writer Mickey Spillane poses on location for the "The Girl Hunters" in New York in this July 1963 portrait

"The monicker is Mike Hammer, kid. I'm a private eye."

Mike Hammer was not your typical gumshoe — at least, not when he made his debut, in I, the Jury, in 1947. A hero with thug tendencies, or a sociopath who fancied himself a hero, Hammer beat up people who got in his way, consistently misled his protector on the police force and, rather than turn the murderer over to the authorities, killed first and asked questions never. He was the bane of civilized society, in books that described his trespasses in lurid detail and shocked nearly as many millions as savored them.

But then Mickey Spillane, who died this week at 88, was not your typical novelist. He had the burly look of a longshoreman; his face was meaty, like his prose style. And Mickey — that's a name to put in a cartoon, not on august hard covers. He also slipped a Mickey to the image of the serious fiction writer, showing a brisk contempt for the elevated anguish of creating literature. In just five years, between 1947 and 1952, he served up seven novels: I, the Jury; My Gun Is Quick; Vengeance Is Mine!; One Lonely Night; The Big Kill; Kiss Me, Deadly; and the non-Hammer story The Long Wait. (The six Hammers are collected in two volumes of The Mike Hammer Collection.) By the mid-50s, those seven titles were among the ten all-time best-sellers. When his critics deplored this stat, Spillane riposted, "Aaah, you're lucky I didn't write three more."

In his self-assessment, Spillane — whose The Long Wait sold three million copies in a single week, and whose worldwide total is in the 140-million range — was also far more blue-collar than tweed-jacket. He wasn't an "author," he said, rejecting the mustiness of the word; he was a "writer." He did his job for money, not recognition by his peers (which came his way late in life). He claimed he banged out I, the Jury in nine days, to which the literary establishment would say, "Really? It took that long?" And he claimed he didn't have "readers" but "customers," who were much more reliable. His writing credo also had a mercenary tinge to it: "The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book." Hook the sucker quick, then make him come back for more.

Spillane's critics thought he typed with his fists: TIME in 1952 called his stuff "sexy drivel." But anyone could see that the man's books had socko starts and knockout endings. I, the Jury begins with Hammer finding his best war buddy, who had literally (everything's literal in Spillane) given his right arm to save Mike, dead on his apartment floor with a grapefruit-size hole in his gut. Hammer swears revenge. But first, for purposes of evidence or exercise or fun, he beats up a plethora of punks, the bouts described with a grisly precision and brio that still startle. ("I swung on him with all of my hundred and ninety pounds. My fist went up to the wrist in his stomach. He flopped to the floor vomiting his lungs out, his face gradually turning purple.") On the last page, he corrals the villain, a gorgeous blond he'd been in love with. and plugs her with a .45. Then comes one of the most pungent windups in pulp lit:

"Her eyes had pain in them now, the pain preceding death. Pain and unbelief.
"'How c-could you?' she gasped.
"I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
"'It was easy,' I said."

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