In July of 2006, at the age of 88, the last major mystery writer of the twentieth century left the building. Only a handful of writers in the genre—Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler among them—achieved such superstar status.
Spillane’s position, however, is unique—reviled by many mainstream critics, despised and envied by a number of his contemporaries in the very field he revitalized, the creator of Mike Hammer had an impact not just on mystery and suspense fiction but popular culture in general.
The success of the paperback reprint editions of his startlingly violent and sexy novels—tens of millions of copies sold—jumpstarted the explosion of so-called “paperback originals,” for the next quarter-century the home of countless Spillane imitators, and his redefinition of the action hero as a tough guy who mercilessly executed villains and slept with beautiful, willing women remains influential (Sin City is Frank Miller’s homage).
When Spillane published I, the Jury in 1947, he introduced in Mike Hammer one of the most famous of all fictional private eyes, and one unlike any P.I. readers had met before. Hammer swears vengeance over the corpse of an army buddy who lost an arm in the Pacific, saving the detective’s life. No matter who the villain turns out to be, Hammer will not just find him, but kill him—even if it’s a her.
Revenge was a constant theme in Mike Hammer’s world—Vengeance Is Mine! among his titles—with the detective rarely taking a paying client. Getting even was the motivation for this hard-boiled hero.
This was something entirely new in mystery fiction, and Spillane quickly became the most popular—and controversial—mystery writer of the mid-twentieth century. In addition to creating an eye-for-an-eye hero, the writer brought a new level of sex and violence to the genre. He was called a fascist by left-leaning critics and a libertine by right-leaning ones. In between were millions of readers who turned Spillane’s first six Hammer novels into the bestselling private eye novels of all time.
Since then, Hammer has been the subject of a radio show, a comic strip, and several television series, starring Darren McGavin in the 1950s and Stacy Keach in the ’80s and ’90s. Numerous gritty movies have been made from Spillane novels, notably director Robert Aldrich’s seminal film noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
As success raged around him, Mickey Spillane proved himself a showman and a marketing genius; he became as famous as his creation, appearing on book jackets with gun in hand and fedora on head. His image became synonymous with Hammer’s, more so even than any of the actors who portrayed the private eye, including McGavin and Keach.
For eighteen years, well past the peak of his publishing success, Spillane appeared as himself (and basically as Hammer) in the wildly successful Miller Lite commercials, alongside his “Doll” (Lee Meredith of The Producers fame) and overshadowing countless former pro athletes.
Alone among mystery writers, he appeared as his own famous detective in a movie, The Girl Hunters (1963). Critics at the time viewed his performance as Hammer favorably, and today many viewers of the quirky, made-in-England film still do. Virtually an amateur, Spillane is in nearly every frame, his natural charisma and wry humor holding him in good stead beside the professional likes of Lloyd Nolan (Michael Shayne of the 1940s Fox movie series) and Shirley Eaton (the “golden girl” of Goldfinger).
The Girl Hunters wasn’t Spillane’s first feature film—it wasn’t even his first leading role in one. In 1954, John Wayne hired Spillane to star with Pat O’Brien and lion-tamer Clyde Beatty in Ring of Fear, a film Mickey co-scripted without credit, receiving a white Jaguar (the car, not the cat) as a gift from producer Wayne.
Mike Hammer paved the way for James Bond and every tough P.I., cop, lone avenger and government agent who followed, from Shaft to Billy Jack, from Dirty Harry to Jack Bauer. The latest Hammer-style heroes include an unlikely one—the vengeance-driven Girl of Dragon Tattoo fame—as well as a more obvious descendent, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.
Now, on the occasion of Spillane’s centenary—he was born March 9, 1918—I am pleased to team up with Hard Case Crime to present readers with a very special birthday present: two previously unpublished works, one from near the start of his mystery writing career, the other the very last novel he wrote, finished within weeks of his passing.
The manuscript of A Bullet for Satisfaction that I found in Mickey’s files is somewhat mysterious. Typewritten on his distinctive yellow paper—like almost everything among the unpublished, unfinished material—a section of the short novel is similarly familiar in being typed in Mickey’s usual single-spaced format (it saved paper and “looked more like a book”).
Two other sections, however, are double-spaced. A number of partial Spillane novel manuscripts were indeed double-spaced but on white paper, presumably prepared by a typist to be sent in to Mickey’s publisher to indicate that contracted-for work was underway. Satisfaction was the only example in the files that appeared to be rough-draft material, typed on the yellow paper Mickey preferred (he found it easy on the eye and immediately identified a manuscript as unfinished), but partly utilizing double-spacing.
And although the short novel had a beginning, middle and end, it lacked Spillane’s usual edits. Mickey liked to claim he never rewrote, but that was an exaggeration—he typically tweaked word choice in pen and replaced paragraphs or even sections with typewritten inserts. A number of the later Hammer novels I wound up finishing gave me alternate versions of entire chapters—The Goliath Bone (2008) had a dizzying number of first chapters for me to choose from and eventually combine. The lack of edits on A Bullet for Satisfaction suggests it was set aside early in the writing process—and yet was a more or less complete draft. So why was it abandoned?
Of course, it’s not automatically mysterious to find unfinished but substantial material in Spillane’s files. Over the past decade-plus since Mickey’s passing, I have completed six Hammer novels working from 100-page beginnings and other materials (characterization and plot notes, sometimes roughed-out endings), and another six from shorter fragments (usually around 30 or 40 pages, again sometimes with other materials).
In addition, I’ve completed Dead Street (all but the final three chapters by Mickey) and The Consummata (again from a 100-page start). Also, a number of Hammer short stories, gathered in the collection A Long Time Dead (2016), have been developed from smaller fragments.
Mickey frequently walked away from an in-progress novel when another project took over his interest. In the last years of his life, he frequently moved from one novel manuscript to another (Goliath Bone and The Last Stand being his final projects, though he also considered Dead Street active). He often had a different novel going in each of his three home offices.
As you will see, A Bullet for Satisfaction, written in tough-guy first-person, has the themes, plotting techniques, melodramatic characterization, hard-breathing sex, and violent action so characteristic of Mickey’s earliest work. Obviously written no later than the mid-’50s, Satisfaction seems almost a compendium of Gold Medal Books-era noir—a rogue cop, a corrupt town, sleazy bars and night spots, crooked politicians, a good girl or two, a bad girl or two, a friendship damaged by betrayal, and Spillane’s trademark vengeance theme.
The existing draft had a number of inconsistencies and rough patches, as well as a risible subplot about Communism that required me to go beyond simple editing into Spillane/Collins collaborative mode. But Satisfaction was certainly something that with a bit of work Mickey could easily have sold to one of his regular magazine markets, Manhunt or Cavalier. So why didn’t he?
One possible clue is that the manuscript may date to the period around 1952 when Spillane was dealing with his religious conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The only Hammer novel he published around then was Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), which finds the writer struggling with the sex and violence elements expected of him. He may have shelved Satisfaction because it would have gotten him in trouble with his newly adopted church.
It’s also possible that he was working on it with one of his group of satellite writers, ex-military buddies who gathered around their successful friend in the fifties. Charlie Wells, Earle Basinsky and Dave Geritty all wrote and published crime novels with Spillane’s help, both as a mentor and as a conduit to such publishers as Gold Medal, Dutton and Signet—Spillane provided cover blurbs for all three writers. Another satellite writer, Joe Gill, a pal of Mickey’s from comic-book days, became a prolific magazine contributor and comics scripter, including the very Hammer-like 1960s P.I. feature, Sarge Steel.
Wells and Basinsky published a pair of novels each—the former, Let the Night Cry (1953) and The Last Kill (1955); the latter The Big Steal (1955) and Death Is a Cold, Keen Edge (1956). But only Geritty had a substantial career, publishing eight novels under assorted bylines (“Garrity,” “Dave J. Garrity,” “David J. Gerrity”) and ghosting two celebrity autobiographies. In Geritty’s sole private eye novel, Dragon Hunt (1967), Spillane loaned out Mike Hammer for several cameos and let his friend re-use the basic plot of the final daily continuity of the comic strip From the Files of…Mike Hammer (1953−1954), which Mickey, Joe Gill and artist Ed Robbins had written.
Of the satellite writers, Geritty seems the most likely to have had a hand in A Bullet for Satisfaction. But the manuscript clearly is a child of the early ’50s, and Geritty did not get a book published till 1960 (Cry Me a Killer, Gold Medal). It seems more likely Mickey censored himself for religious reasons, and put the novella aside.
But for the purposes of this volume, A Bullet for Satisfaction provides a sharp, revealing contrast with Mickey’s final completed novel, The Last Stand. Together these companion pieces bookend Mickey’s extraordinary career.
A month or so before his passing in the summer of 2006, Mickey sent me The Last Stand.
We spoke on the phone and I told him what a kick I’d gotten out of it. He was happy with the book—happy to have finished it, under the circumstances, but overall pleased, though he told me of a few things he’d like to touch up “if he had the time.” (My contribution to the novel has largely been carrying out Mickey’s instructions.) He then turned his attention to his final Hammer novel-in-progress, The Goliath Bone, calling me days before his death and asking me to complete it for him, if necessary.
Around this time, he also told his wife Jane that there would be a “treasure hunt” after he was gone, and to “give everything to Max—he’ll know what to do.” Jane reminded him that I was not a Jehovah’s Witness, and Mickey said he understood—I would not be bound to leave out things that might displease his church.
My wife Barb (with whom I write the Antiques mystery series) and I joined Jane in the treasure hunt that took us to all three of Mickey’s offices in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. The files were extensive, as I’ve indicated. We sat in the Spillane dining room with a feast of manuscripts before us, each of us combing through our stacks of pages, occasionally one of us crying out, “Here’s a Hammer!”
Included, of course, was Mickey’s final completed manuscript —The Last Stand, not a Mike Hammer. After much thought, and some input from Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai, I decided to put it aside, with the centenary in mind. My immediate priority was to get the unpublished Mike Hammer material out there—Mickey had only published thirteen Hammer novels in his lifetime—as well as the two other substantial unfinished crime novels, Dead Street and The Consummata. My current Spillane project is completing the earliest manuscript in the files, Killing Town (Titan Books, forthcoming 2018), the first Mike Hammer novel, preceding even I, The Jury.
The Last Stand represents the culmination of the final phase of Mickey’s writing life, in which he was more interested in adventure than mystery—although from the beginning, Spillane heroes had been two-fisted adventurers, and all of his work contains elements of mystery and crime fiction. His two published books for pre-adolescents—The Day the Sea Rolled Back (1979) and The Ship That Never Was (1982)—reflect that bent toward adventure, and his love of the sea. His final published novel, Something’s Down There (2003), similarly reflects his enthusiasm for boating and deep-sea fishing, with Mike Hammer replaced by the evocatively (and similarly) named Mako Hooker.
The Last Stand is a wonderful chance to spend some time with one of twentieth century America’s greatest storytellers in the mellow twilight of his life. In it, he celebrates his love of flying, much as Something’s Down There celebrates the sea; he allows his imagination to soar, as well, while keeping it grounded in the reality of the down-to-earth story he’s telling.He told me what he would like to do to the thieves, then his fists became fingers again, and he said, “But I’m not like that anymore. I don’t do that now.”
Mickey’s final novel provides a coda to his larger body of work, and is at once atypical and typical. His hero, Joe Gillian (named for satellite writer Joe Gill) is a tough, confident man, very much in the tradition of Hammer, Tiger Mann and other Spillane protagonists. His story, however, is told in the third person, where the Hammer canon (and the vast majority of the writer’s fiction) is in vivid first person. Here the prose is spare but occasionally poetic, and dialogue drives the narrative.
In these pages, Spillane returns to his recurring themes of male friendship and male/female companionship. It is easy (as someone once said) to see Hammer’s friend Pat Chambers in Gillian’s friend Pete, and Hammer’s life partner Velda in the lovely Running Fox. The bad rap Spillane gets as a supposed misogynist overlooks the obvious: the women in his fiction are usually strong, powerful and smart, every bit the hero’s equal.
That Joe Gillian bonds easily with the Indians of an unspecified “rez” is no surprise, either, as Mike Hammer’s friends were often among the outsiders of society. Nor is the modern-day Western aspect of the novel inconsistent with Mickey’s view of Mike Hammer as an urban gunslinger. The Mick’s interest in Westerns is also evident in the unproduced screenplay he wrote for his friend John Wayne, which has led to the posthumous novel The Legend of Caleb York (Kensington Books, 2015) and several sequels.
Also present, not surprisingly, is the dominant theme of Spillane’s fiction—vengeance. But in The Last Stand, it’s the brute called Big Arms who craves revenge, not hero Gillian, who is a man of a certain age at peace with himself, looking for neither trouble nor riches, though the love of a good woman does hold appeal. Crime-fighting and mystery seem almost to have to seek Gillian out, though seek him out they do.
Gillian’s very masculine but non-aggressive view on life reflects Spillane in his final years. The Hammer of Black Alley (1996) is definitely a laid-back version of the character, which pleases readers who have followed Hammer’s journey over the decades, but can confuse those who only know the hate-filled young investigator of I, the Jury. Like Black Alley, The Last Stand is a barely concealed rumination on coming to terms with aging.
Not long after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Mickey and I sat one evening in the makeshift tiki bar he’d built in his backyard. Mickey spoke of his anger at those who had looted his home in the aftermath of the storm. I saw in his eyes the burning rage of Mike Hammer and he held his hands in front of him, squeezing them into fists. He told me what he would like to do to the thieves, then his fists became fingers again, and he said, “But I’m not like that anymore. I don’t do that now.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, when I spoke to him about The Last Stand on the phone, he said to me, “You know, I really like that Big Arms.” If a voice can have a twinkle in it, his did. With that big-kid quality he often got when he spoke of work he’d done that had pleased him, he said, “I really like that character.” Not Joe Gillian, but Big Arms, who haunts the good-natured pages of The Last Stand like Mike Hammer’s ghost.
From Max Allan Collins’ introduction to The Last Stand, by Mickey Spillane, courtesy Hard Case Crime. Copyright © 2018, Hard Case Crime.