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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After that five-year spurt, Spillane took himself out of the novelist's game. He franchised the Hammer character to a radio show, a TV series, a comic strip and three movies. He found new appetites: race-car driving, for one (he stank at it). He did a hitch with Clyde Beatty's circus, where, on the receiving end of artillery for once, he would be shot out of a cannon. He also acted in a Beatty movie, Ring of Fear, and did a rewrite of the script. Most astonishing, he joined the Christian sect Jehovah's Witnesses, proselytizing from door to door. And when one of those doors was slammed in his face, did Spillane put his knuckles through it?

After nine years he went back to writing, though without the same dominance of the market. Now, his books sold only a couple million copies. For a while he retired again from writing, while earning new name recognition in a 16-year gig as the grizzled but twinkly spokesman for Miller Lite Beer. In his eighth decade he dropped the age level of his target audience by about five years and wrote award-winning books for children.


Crime novelists define their heroes by their names. Hammett's Sam Spade digs for the truth; Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason builds a case for his client's innocence; Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer shoots arrows of inquiry; and Mike Hammer... pounds.

Sherlock Holmes' deductions relied on a familiarity with the social conventions of the Victorian England of which he was a part. Hammer, who seems to be the most brutal of city street kids, proceeds from some of the same assumptions about postwar New York: it's smart and lethal, and so big almost any criminal can lose himself in it (till Hammer tracks him down). But Hammer's New York was an extension of his suspicions about anybody who wasn't him.

There are other differences, plenty. Holmes was all brain, pure reason. Hammer's intelligence is physical; he impresses people by hurting them or threatening to. He's a New York Stanley Kowalski, or a shark with a few scruples. Also, Holmes was known to us through the admiring, often puzzled perception of his friend Dr. Watson. Hammer, without friends or partners to write his biography, always spoke in the first person. Not only that, they paraded that writer-hero-reader identification in the titles: I, My, Mine, Me.

Mike was the sole witness, yet we were expected to take his testimony on faith: that every man blanched at his approach, and every woman swooned. The power, if not plausibility, of Spillane's writing can't obliterate the inference that his hero was delusional. Hammer could be a Nabokov hero, confessing his sins by boasting of them, constructing an elaborate alternate reality to blot out the one he's stuck with.

But just because Hammer tells the tale — and because Spillane has publicly identified himself with his character, playing it tough in a trenchcoat in movies and TV commercials — doesn't mean the reader has to take Mike, or Mickey, at face value. Spillane said Hammer was less a person than "a state of mind." A reading of the first six Hammer suggests that the sleuth was a complicated and unstable soul.


Mike Hammer, a grunt in WWII, works as a private eye, based in the Hackard Building in Manhattan. He smokes Luckies, drinks beer, or rye and soda, does home cooking (steak) in his shorts. For someone so proudly obsessed with money, Spillane spent little effort explaining how Hammer made a living. As Joe Gores says in the Collins doc, "Mike Hammer forgets to get paid most of the time." But that's because, unlike most previous detective novels, in which the hero is brought into a case involving people he doesn't know, and which he can solve without much expenditure of passion, the murder that sets most Hammer novels in motion is the death of an old friend (I, the Jury) or a new acquaintance (My Gun Is Quick, The Big Kill, Kiss Me, Deadly). He works on these cases pro bono, and post mortem. That made Mike the first revenge private eye, the first one who took murder personally.

Hammer thinks of himself as loyal to his few friends. He helps those he pities: halfwit Bobo in I, the Jury, the doomed women he briefly befriends at the beginnings of My Gun Is Quick and Kiss Me, Deadly; and, most implausibly and hokily, an orphaned infant in The Big Kill. But he's better at hating. "I hate hard," he brags. He does a lot of hating, and each time it's like the first time: "I could feel the mad running right down into my shoes." (He needs Depends for his temper.) Though he doesn't flee the city, as Spillane did, Hammer hates a lot about it. "I hate the lice that run the streets without even being scratched," he says in My Gun Is Quick. I'm the guy with the spray gun..."

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