Isn’t It About Time We Stopped Loathing Mickey Spillane?

Critics couldn’t stand his brutal crime novels, but his customers weren’t so finicky. They bought 200 million copies of his books. At his centenary, maybe we owe him a fresh look.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

They got abandoned, slapped around, and drowned. They got strung up, whipped, knifed, and/or shot. Women had it rough in Mickey Spillane novels, which led to predictable charges of misogyny, but those doing the charging tended to ignore the fact that men had it just as rough and, more to the point, Mickey Spillane didn’t give a good goddamn what the critics thought about his work. He became one of the best-selling authors in the history of the printed word because the only thing he cared about was satisfying his millions of fans.

Hold on. That last sentence contains two errors. “Hell, I’m not an author, I’m a writer,” Spillane once said. “I’m just trying to entertain.” As for his audience, he added, “I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers.”

How refreshing! In an age when writers grovel for critical acclaim and prizes, when careerist MFAs rule the literary world, and political correctness has infected American fiction like some devious vanilla virus, we could use a little of Mickey Spillane’s earthiness and lack of pretension.

To mark the centenary of his birth—he was born on March 9, 1918, in Brooklyn—the Hard Case Crime series is bringing out a never-before-published novel that Spillane finished shortly before he died of pancreatic cancer in 2006. It’s called The Last Stand, and it’s proof that there was much more to Spillane than sex and violence and Mike Hammer, his signature hard-boiled private eye, once described in Life magazine as “a strip-and-shoot machine who drinks a lot, never thinks at all, and sells better than anybody.”

The Last Stand has a sweet valedictory feel—and none of Mike Hammer’s gorilla masculinity. It’s the story of Joe Gillian, a man of a certain age whose vintage airplane conks out, forcing an emergency landing on a remote stretch of desert that happens to be an Indian reservation. There he falls in with a Native American named Sequoia Pete, whose fetching sister, Running Fox, knows her way around a socket wrench and a karate kick. Joe melts. Complications ensue with the arrival of a sinister gangster, FBI agents, rumors of a missing pile of gold and a mysterious mineral deposit, and a menacing Indian named Big Arms, who stands between Joe and Running Fox.

The Last Stand is striking for its low body count, near absence of violence or gunplay, and the gentle romance at the heart of the story. The novel is a portrait of a writer in the twilight of a half-century career—a writer who knew how to make readers turn the pages—and it should serve as a corrective to several misconceptions about Spillane, both the writer and the man.

We’re back to the charge of misogyny, a stone killer for writers and everybody else these days. Max Allan Collins, a prolific mystery writer (Road to Perdition and more than 100 other titles), has shepherded a dozen Spillane fragments into published form since 2006. In his introduction to The Last Stand, Collins calls the misogyny charge a “bad rap.”

Speaking by phone from his home in Iowa, Collins adds, “That’s a very sloppy and glib perception. Take Spillane’s second-most-famous creation, the character Velda, Mike Hammer’s secretary. She has a PI license, she’s very tough, very resourceful, and at least as smart as Mike Hammer. When the women are villains, they’re always strong and very smart—Mike Hammer’s equal. These women are worthy opponents.”

Spillane once persuaded his publisher to run a full-page newspaper ad with blurbs from his negative reviews, along with his stratospheric sales figures and the tagline ‘Let’s hope the next one gets even worse reviews.’

Collins first met Spillane at a convention in 1981, and their long friendship revealed a side of Spillane few people saw—the truth behind his tough-guy dismissal of his critics. Spillane didn’t get it just from highbrow critics, Collins notes, he got it from every quarter. After Mike Hammer’s sensationally violent debut in 1947’s I, the Jury, Spillane reeled off half a dozen follow-ups that sold millions of copies and, predictably, ignited a backlash over the books’ brazen sex and violence and their rumbling undertow of vengeance.

Spillane was derided as a fascist by liberals and as a libertine by conservatives (even though he detested communists so much that he had 40 of them mowed down by machine gun in 1951’s One Lonely Night, a gesture red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy surely applauded). Spillane was the only prose writer singled out by Dr. Frederic Wertham in his 1954 anti-comic-book screed, Seduction of the Innocent, and of course he was almost universally panned by critics.

One writer put it succinctly: “The astonishing thing about Mike Hammer’s success is that nobody likes him but the public. No major book reviewer, anywhere, has ever said a kind word for a Spillane novel.” Spillane’s own father described the books as “crud.”

The truth, according to Collins, was that Spillane was stung by it all. “It’s a more complicated issue than it seems,” Collins says. “His way of dealing with the attacks was to say he didn’t give a damn. I don’t think he revealed it much, but this stuff did mean something to him.” By way of proof, Collins notes that Spillane pinned his bad reviews to a bulletin board above his writing desk at his home in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. And in a move Collins describes as “defensive,” Spillane once persuaded his publisher to run a full-page newspaper ad with blurbs from his negative reviews, along with his stratospheric sales figures and the tagline “Let’s hope the next one gets even worse reviews.”

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Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Mickey Spillane lived an outsize life. He worked as a circus trampoline artist and a lifeguard before enlisting in the Army Air Force the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After the war he wrote for the comics—Captain Marvel, Superman, Human Torch, Batman, “you name it, I did them all.” His short stories appeared in such august magazines as Cavalier, Saga, and Manhunt. He became a Jehovah’s Witness and quit writing for two long spells. His books inspired successful movies and TV series, and Spillane even took a turn playing Mike Hammer, winning favorable reviews. He spent 18 years as a trench-coated pitchman for Miller Lite beer. He also wrote well-received children’s books. It all added up to prove the dirty little secret that has always dwelled at the heart of American writing: A good story will always trump a gorgeous writing style. The guardians of literary fiction can’t bear to admit what Spillane always took as a given.

In the end, his biggest sin may have been that 200 million copies of his books have been sold—so far. “A lot of people figure you can’t be that popular without pandering to the multitudes,” says Loren D. Estleman, a prolific author of crime and Western fiction who likens Spillane, in this respect, to Somerset Maugham, John O’Hara, even Charles Dickens, writers whose vast readership got them dissed as second-rate by their contemporaries. He might have added Dan Brown, James Patterson, Stephen King, and Anne Rice to the list. “Spillane spoke to all levels,” Estleman says, “and a lot of women love his stuff. I think they like the fact that his women are strong. His femmes fatales are tough characters.”

When his fame and the backlash against him were peaking in the early 1950s, Spillane expressed a simple desire: “I just wish people would get off my neck.” Maybe, after reading The Last Stand, they finally will.