CHARLESTON, S.C.—Mickey Spillane, whose Mike Hammer private eye novels generated a post-World War II storm of literary criticism for their level of sex and violence and made Spillane one of the bestselling authors of the 20th century, died today. He was 88.
Spillane, who lived more than 50 years in the South Carolina coastal fishing village of Murrells Inlet, died "peacefully at his house with his family," said Brian Edgerton of Goldfinch Funeral Home.
The cause of death was not disclosed.
A former comic book writer and Army Air Forces veteran, the Brooklyn-born Spillane arrived on the literary scene in 1947 with the publication of his first novel, "I, the Jury," which introduced his tough guy New York City private detective.
With his wartime best friend having been found murdered as the novel opens, Hammer vows to find out who did it and let the killer have it the same way his pal got it, with "a .45 slug to the gut, just a little below the belly button." The book concludes with what has been called the most infamous ending in hard-boiled fiction.
After discovering the killer is the seductively beautiful woman he has fallen for, Hammer plugs her with a .45 slug to her naked belly. The book's final three lines:
"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.
"I, the Jury" was blasted by critics. Mystery authority Anthony Boucher called it a "vicious glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods." And the Saturday Review magazine denounced its "lurid action, lurid characters, lurid plot, lurid finish."
For his part, Spillane let the critical barbs roll off him like Jack Daniels over ice.
"I pay no attention to those jerks who think they're critics," he proclaimed in one interview. In another, he said: "I don't give a hoot about reading reviews. What I want to read is the royalty checks."
First published in hardback by E.P. Dutton, "I, the Jury" did not become a worldwide phenomenon until it was released as a 25-cent Signet paperback; by 1952, some 4 million copies reportedly had been sold.
Its success led to a dozen more Mike Hammer mysteries over the decades, including, in quick succession, "My Gun Is Quick" (1950), "Vengeance Is Mine!" (1950), "One Lonely Night" (1951), "The Big Kill" (1951) and "Kiss Me, Deadly" (1952).
With Hammer, Spillane secured his place in the pantheon of such mystery greats as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But Spillane was said to have an edge over the more critically acclaimed creators of private eyes Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
As Otto Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York, told the Washington Post in 2001: "While Hammett and Chandler were successful and well-known, they never approached the kind of success in terms of readership and recognition that Mickey has had."
Indeed, Spillane's success spawned a Mike Hammer radio show, a cartoon strip (written by Spillane) and three TV series, one starring Darren McGavin in the late 1950s and two starring Stacy Keach in the 1980s and `90s.
There also were a couple of Mike Hammer TV movies in the 1980s and a handful of earlier motion pictures, including Robert Aldrich's 1955 film noir classic, "Kiss Me, Deadly," starring Ralph Meeker, and "The Girl Hunters" (1963). In the latter, Spillane donned a trench coat and fedora to become the only mystery writer ever to portray his own fictional sleuth on film.
The stocky 5-foot-8 writer with a bull neck and trademark crew cut had a theatrical flair for self-promotion. He played himself as a detective hired by wild animal trainer Clyde Beatty to solve a circus mystery in the 1954 film "Ring of Fear," and he played a bestselling writer threatened with murder on a 1974 episode of "Columbo." He also occasionally posed as Hammer on the covers of paperback editions of his mystery novels.