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A Simple Plot: Violence, Sex and Royalty Checks

Times Staff Writer

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 best-selling authors of the 20th century, died Monday. 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.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 20, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 20, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Spillane obituary: The obituary of detective fiction writer Mickey Spillane in Tuesday’s Section A said he divorced his second wife, Sherri. Sherri Spillane was the plaintiff in the divorce.

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 avenge his friend’s death the same way he was killed, 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 that the killer is the seductively beautiful woman he has fallen for, Hammer shoots her with a .45 slug to her naked belly. The book’s final three lines:

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“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 expert Anthony Boucher called it a “vicious ... glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods.” The Saturday Review 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 had reportedly 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, alongside 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 ‘80s and ‘90s.

“Shortly after being cast in the role,” Keach said Monday in a statement, “I had the great pleasure of speaking with Mickey on the phone prior to the filming of ‘Murder Me, Murder You,’ and I asked him for whatever advice he might have, to which he replied: ‘Just wear the hat, kid. Don’t do it without the hat.’ ”

There were also 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 himself donned a trench coat and hat to become the only mystery writer ever to portray his own fictional sleuth on film.

The stocky, 5-foot, 8-inch 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 best-selling writer threatened with murder in a 1974 episode of “Columbo.” He also occasionally posed as Hammer on the covers of paperback editions of his mystery novels.

But Spillane achieved his greatest fame as a pop-culture icon when he spoofed himself, again outfitted in the traditional private-eye garb, in more than 110 commercials for Miller Lite beer from 1973 to 1989.

Spillane’s celebrity status prompted fans to seek him out at his home in Murrells Inlet, south of Myrtle Beach. He reportedly once pointed his shotgun at the pilot of a helicopter hovering overhead to give its passengers a close look at Spillane’s house.

But he typically welcomed fans -- at least those who approached by land -- and he was more likely to reach into an ice chest and offer an uninvited guest a cold beer.

“I have no fans,” Spillane told the Washington Post in 1984. “You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friend.”

Despite his wealth, Spillane was a man of simple tastes, one who enjoyed fishing from his 24-foot boat and driving a Ford pickup truck that he called his “Carolina Cadillac.”

He did boast of owning a 1956 Jaguar, but it was a gift from John Wayne for Spillane’s uncredited rewriting of “Ring of Fear.” The car, the author was fond of recalling, came wrapped in a big red ribbon and a note that said, “Thanks, Duke.”

Spillane lived up to his colorful persona. He dove for treasure off the Florida Keys, rode with moonshiners and revenue agents in Appalachia, raced stock cars and toured as a trampoline artist with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. He was even shot out of a cannon.

But, contrary to his tough-guy image, Spillane was a father of four children and a convert to Jehovah’s Witnesses who has been described as being soft-spoken, affable and articulate -- a man who spiced his conversations with phrases no more offensive than “by golly,” “my word” and “son of a gun.”

“I’m actually a softie,” he said in a 2004 interview with The Times when he was nearly 86. “Tough guys get killed too early.”

The only child of an Irish Catholic bartender father and a Presbyterian mother, he was born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn on March 9, 1918. He was given the saint’s name Michael when he was baptized in the Catholic Church, and thereafter, his father called him Mickey.

Spillane grew up in a tough neighborhood in Elizabeth, N.J., and began writing as a teenager. He said he “turned pro right out of high school,” writing short stories for Collier’s and other “slick” magazines as well as pulps such as Dime Detective.

After three years at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, he returned to his birthplace of New York and ultimately landed a job as a scriptwriter-assistant editor at Funnies Inc., where he proved to be the company’s most prolific writer. Whereas other writers took a week to produce an eight-page story, Spillane churned out his stories for “Captain Marvel,” “The Human Torch” and other titles in a single day.

Joining the Army the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Spillane served as a cadet flight instructor in Florida and Mississippi and rose to the rank of captain. In 1945, he married the first of his three wives, Mary Ann, with whom he had his four children: Kathy, Ward, Michael and Caroline.

In 1946, with the comic book business in a postwar slump, and needing $1,000 to buy a parcel of land near Newburgh, N.Y., Spillane came up with a way to raise the money: Write a novel.

Inspired by Mike Danger, a two-fisted private-eye character he had developed for a comic book whose publication was waylaid by Spillane’s enlistment in the Army, he began writing.

In what has variously been reported as either nine, 16 or 19 days, he completed “I, the Jury.”

“I knew it would be a hit,” Spillane told the Ottawa (Canada) Citizen in 1999. “Paperback reprints were huge during the war, and I saw a market for originals. All those soldiers coming back. A little sex wouldn’t hurt, and they’d seen violence. I got a comic book distributor to guarantee a paperback reprint and got a $1,000 U.S. advance from Dutton for the hardcover.”

Literary critics weren’t the only ones who criticized Spillane and his writing, accusing him of sadism, hating women and other offenses. Members of the clergy and editorial page writers also denounced the Mike Hammer novels, and Spillane’s work was criticized in Senate hearings investigating juvenile delinquency in the 1950s.

But while acknowledging that his books were the “chewing gum of American literature,” Spillane basked in his success.

“I’m the most translated writer in the world, behind Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorky and Jules Verne -- and they’re all dead,” he’d say.

Spillane took delight in recalling the time, during the early years of paperbacks, when “some New York literary guy” approached him at a dinner party and said, “I think it’s disgraceful that of the 10 best-selling books of all time, seven were written by you.”

To which, the Washington Post later reported, Spillane replied: “You’re lucky I’ve only written seven books.”

A two-fingered typist who pounded out his books on a manual Smith Corona, Spillane always said he was a “writer,” not an “author.”

“What’s the distinction? A writer makes money,” he said.

In all, Spillane wrote 53 books, which reportedly have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide, and include his Tiger Mann spy series. He wrote some children’s books, including “The Day the Sea Rolled Back,” which won a Junior Literary Guild Award.

In 1995, Spillane received the Mystery Writers Assn.'s Grand Master for Lifetime Achievement award.

Spillane divorced his first wife in 1962 and was later married to actress Sherri Malinou, whom he also divorced. In 1983, he married Jane Rodgers Johnson, a fitness teacher 28 years his junior who had been the first runner-up Miss South Carolina in 1965.

A list of survivors was not immediately available.


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