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

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If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and parody the comic's way of showing envy, then Spillane was a signal success. A Life cover line on Spillane read: "13,000,000 Books of Sex and Slaughter." He didn't exactly invent the paperback market, but he certified their status as the main format for popular fiction. "Mickey Spillane's contribution is far beyond mystery or crime writing," crime-book editor Martin Greenberg says in the affectionate and impressive documentary Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane (available as part of the three-disc set Max Allan Collins' Black Box). "I think he's a phenomenon in regard to the whole explosion of the mass-market paperback, and was probably its first great star." Spillane's popularity spawned a generation of tough-guy, "paperback-original" novelists — Jim Thompson, Charles Williams and a raft of others whose works were filmed by the French New Wave directors.

Spillane was more famous, more notorious, than any of those writers; for a time, he was the Elvis of fiction. His blockbuster status, along with his sex-and-violence plots and the muscular, almost steroidal, power of his imagery, made him ripe for satire. Sid Caesar played a Hammer character on Your Show of Shows. Al Feldstein led off the first issue of Panic, the sibling of Mad comic book, with a story called "Me, the Verdict," an acute burlesque of Spillane tropes. The highest compliment was paid by Fred Astaire, who in 1953's The Band Wagon devoted an entire ballet, called "The Girl Hunt," to the Hammer mystique. (A decade later, Spillane tipped his fedora to Astaire by titling a Hammer novel The Girl Hunters.)


The severest take on Spillane is that he was a period wonder, of slightly more than the nine days it took to write a book, with no current relevance. A half-century later, people may be puzzled by his impact, and the society that devoured or derided his work. (Trust me: 50 years from now some aged critic will be asked to explain the long-ago popularity of Adam Sandler. Good luck.) That may explain why Spillane's death didn't make the front page of the New York Times.

Yet an argument can be made that he was the most influential writer of the mid-20th century. I won't, but I don't have to, since more knowledgeable writers have. Start with Collins, the crime novelist (Road to Perdition) who is the Mick's most assiduous champion: he collaborated with Spillane on several anthologies, cast him as a featured player in two movies. Collins directed and co-authored One Lonely Knight, the only book-length study of Spillane. Collins credits Spillane with creating, in Hammer "the template for James Bond, Dirty Harry, Billy Jack, Rambo, John Shaft, and countless other fictional tough guys." (When TIME reviewed Casino Royale, it praised Bond as "Mike Hammer in gentleman's clothing.")

Hammer, Collins argues, was "perhaps the first widely popular antihero: a good guy who used the methods of the bad guy in pursuit of frontier justice, a vigilante who spared the courts the trouble of a trial by executing the villain himself." The jolt this character gave to literature, by being both so brutal and so popular, was immediate and lasting. "We were a very puritan nation right up through the 1950s," says novelist Loren Estleman. "I think it was people like Mickey Spillane, getting out there and effectively butting his head against the wall that made those walls collapse."

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