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Mystery writer Mickey Spillane dies

Creator of Detective Mike Hammer also starred in movies of his books
Mickey Spillane stands on the porch of his home in Murrell's Inlet, S.C, on May 16, 2001. The macho mystery writer, who wowed millions of readers with the shoot-'em-up sex and violence of gumshoe Mike Hammer, died Monday, July 17, 2006, at 88.Lou Krasky / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mickey Spillane created tough guy detective Mike Hammer, whose savage, shoot-’em-up exploits wowed millions and influenced Hollywood’s film noir movement. But he considered himself a writer, not an author.

Books by writers, he said, are the ones that sell.

“This is an income-generating job,” he told The Associated Press in a 2001 interview. “Fame was never anything to me unless it afforded me a good livelihood.”

The macho mystery writer died Monday at 88. Spillane’s wife, Jane, told The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News that he had cancer.

Visitation was scheduled for Saturday at the Goldfinch Funeral Home, and a memorial service will be held July 29 at the Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall near Spillane’s Murrells Inlet home, about 80 miles northeast of Charleston.

After starting out in comic books, Spillane wrote his first Hammer novel, “I, the Jury,” which was published in 1947. Twelve more followed, with sales topping 100 million. Notable titles included “The Killing Man,” “The Girl Hunters” and “One Lonely Night.”

Many Hammer books were made into movies, including the classic film noir “Kiss Me, Deadly” and “The Girl Hunters,” in which Spillane himself starred. Hammer stories were also featured on television in the series “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer” and in made-for-TV movies. In the 1980s, Spillane appeared in a string of Miller Lite beer commercials.

“Thanks, Mickey, for giving the world so much pleasure during your time with us,” actor Stacy Keach, who portrayed Hammer on TV in the 1980s, said Monday in a statement. “We shall miss you, but we are comforted by the knowledge that your work and Mike Hammer will live forever.”

More than just HammerBesides the Hammer novels, Spillane wrote a dozen other books, including some award-winning volumes for young people. Nonetheless, by the end of the 20th century, many of his novels were out of print or hard to find. In 2001, the New American Library began reissuing them.

As a stylist, Spillane was no innovator; the prose was hard-boiled boilerplate. In a typical scene, from “The Big Kill,” Hammer slugs a little punk with “pig eyes.”

“I snapped the side of the rod across his jaw and laid the flesh open to the bone,” Spillane wrote. “I pounded his teeth back into his mouth with the end of the barrel ... and I took my own damn time about kicking him in the face. He smashed into the door and lay there bubbling. So I kicked him again and he stopped bubbling.”

Mainstream critics had little use for Spillane, but he got his due in the mystery world, receiving lifetime achievement awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the Private Eye Writers of America.

“What I liked about him was he was always aware of who and what he was,” said mystery writer Robert Parker, 73, whose novels feature Boston private eye Spenser. “He said to me once, ’I don’t have readers, I have customers.’ And I don’t think anyone, even in the solemnity of death, would argue that Mickey was a great writer, but he was a good guy and he was a successful writer and the combination ain’t bad.”

Spillane, a bearish man who wrote on an old manual Smith Corona, always claimed he didn’t care about reviews.

He was born Frank Morrison Spillane on March 9, 1918, in the New York borough of Brooklyn. He grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., and attended Fort Hays State College in Kansas, where he was a standout swimmer, before beginning his career writing for magazines.

He had always liked police stories — an uncle was a cop — and in his pre-Hammer days he created a comic book detective named Mike Danger. At the time, the early 1940s, he was writing for Batman, SubMariner and other comics.

“I wanted to get away from the flying heroes and I had the prototype cop,” Spillane said.

Danger never saw print. World War II broke out and Spillane enlisted. When he came home, he needed $1,000 to buy some land and thought novels the best way to go. Within three weeks, he had completed “I, the Jury” and sent it to Dutton Books. The editors there doubted the writing, but not the market for it; a publishing franchise began. His books helped reveal the power of the paperback market and became so popular they were parodied in movies, including the Fred Astaire musical, “The Band Wagon.”

‘Quintessential’He was a quintessential Cold War writer, an unconditional believer in good and evil. He was also a rare political conservative in the book world. Communists were villains in his work and liberals took some hits as well. He was not above using crude racial and sexual stereotypes.

Viewed by some as a precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Spillane’s Hammer was a loner contemptuous of the “tedious process” of the jury system, choosing instead to enforce the law on his own murderous terms. His novels were attacked for their violence and vigilantism — one critic said “I, the Jury” belonged in “Gestapo training school” — but some defended them as the most shameless kind of pleasure.

While the Hammer books were set in New York, Spillane was a longtime resident of Murrells Inlet, a coastal community near Myrtle Beach. He moved to South Carolina in 1954 when the area, now jammed with motels and tourist attractions, was still predominantly tobacco and corn fields. Spillane said he fell in love with the long stretches of deserted beaches when he first saw the area from an airplane.

The writer, who became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1951 and helped build the group’s Kingdom Hall, spent his time boating and fishing when he wasn’t writing. In the 1950s, he also worked as a circus performer, allowing himself to be shot out of a cannon and appearing in the circus film “Ring of Fear.”

The house in which he lived for 35 years was destroyed by the 135-mph winds of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Married three times, Spillane was the father of four children.