Spillane and Me

by wjw on November 28, 2006

I hear that Mickey Spillane died recently.

My acquaintance with the Spillane oeuvre was brief. I was a teenager, staying at a mountain resort with my family. The resort’s common room— the place with the pingpong and card tables and the comfy sofa with its cracked leather cushions— had a bookshelf where people could leave books they’d finished with, or pick up something new. Someone had put a whole shelf of Spillane there, so I read it.

It’s not like this was work. The books were short, punchy, moved well, and were told with zest. They were written in a matter of days and could be read in under 90 minutes. The violence, sadism, and sex were fun if you understood that this was a comic book, not real life. Even as a teenager I knew better than to take Spillane’s paranoid world-view seriously.

As mysteries, they were deficient. Mike Hammer never actually solved crimes by, say, thinking logically and following clues. He’d go around interviewing witnesses and shooting, stabbing, gut-kicking, or crucifying the various thugs and Commie spies who tried to kill him— he averaged something like 10 corpses per book— until about three-quarters of the way through, when he’d “suddenly realize” who the villain was, and then there would be a final one-on-one confrontation, some deeply personal violence, another body stretched on the floor, and that would be that.

But Spillane’s writing could teach you a few things— besides, of course, how to gut-shoot a beautiful woman with a .45. His stories didn’t just move, they leaped and bounded and raced. His prose was inelegant but to the point— if Hammer said something was black, it was black. If he said it was white, then it was white. End of discussion, move on. His characters went far beyond stereotype into archetype— and when all your characters are archetypes you can save yourself a lot of prose, because there’s a lot less explaining to do.

And in one book he did one really interesting literary trick. In Vengeance is Mine, the last sentence reads “Juno was a —–.” (I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the book by giving it away.)

The entire book came down to that last word. Read the last word, and it casts a completely new light on everything that went before.

Now that, I thought, was interesting.

I put the idea away in my mental card file and never read Spillane again.

Decades later, I was starting the Dread Empire’s Fall series, and faced with the intimidating prospect of closely plotting three books. Spillane’s literary trick somehow surfaced in my mind, and I thought, Aha!

I always like to know what I’m writing toward, and in this case I decided to send the whole story aiming straight as the slug from a .45 right toward that last . . . well, I couldn’t manage word, but I did manage sentence. That last sentence is intended to be a kind of cliff on which the wave that is the narrative breaks and is reflected back, toward that which has come before.

Some people have told me I’ve succeeded in this.

So thanks, Mickey. When we finally meet in that great Author’s Bar in the Sky, I’ll buy you a slug of rye.

Eric Blair December 4, 2006 at 6:47 pm

I don’t know if it exactly reframes the entire triology, but the ending of Dread Empire’s Fall certainly was a slap upside the head. Good shot there.

Mark Reep December 6, 2006 at 6:14 pm

“If you’re a singer you lose your voice. A baseball player loses his arm. A writer gets more knowledge, and if he’s good, the older he gets, the better he writes.”

– Mickey Spillane

Growing up, I read my share of Spillane. He was another of many writers (Louis L’Amour is another who comes to mind) whose work I enjoyed, absorbed, learned from in those days. Last title I can remember for sure was The Erection Set, from the early 70’s- And what a 70’s title that was 🙂 I remember reading that book and realizing how Spillane had grown over the years. The Erection Set’s protagonist (wanna say the character’s name was Dogeron Kelly, not sure now) was a guy who made his lover come with the handle of her hairbrush- While they talked about why some other kinds of things didn’t work as well for her. Maybe I’m making more of it than it was. But those kinds of scenes made an impression on me. Partly, of course, because making a woman come was something I very much wanted to learn everything I could about at the time- But partly, too, because Spillane was writing about
consideration and understanding, and other aspects of a relationship. He was still, always Spillane. But he kept getting better, too.

dubjay December 7, 2006 at 2:59 am

Spillane also wrote some award-winning fiction for children, which indicates a certain depth in his character that wasn’t apparent in the Mike Hammer stories.

It seems as if people made the elementary mistake of confusing the psychotic, PTSD-suffering Mike Hammer with his creator, who was— who couldn’t help but be— a more complex and interesting person.

David W. Goldman December 7, 2006 at 9:56 am

Thanks — because of your post I’ve now read the first three Spillane novels. A bracing experience!

But darn: I’m just not getting this. For me, the last sentence of your trilogy provides a pinpoint, concise summing-up of a certain character’s approach to life. And also reflects that character’s persistent outsider status. But in that sentence I don’t see a surprise or a twist.

I’m apparently overlooking something big here. Got a hint for the inexcusably clueless?

dubjay December 8, 2006 at 10:14 pm

DWG, you’re not clueless at all. That sentence— mine, not Spillane’s— wasn’t meant to be a surprise or a twist. Just the place where the wave that was the narrative rebounded.

Although there was a surprise just a few sentences earlier in the scene.

david w. goldman December 9, 2006 at 5:48 am

Ah, well okay then.

In which case, you can add me to the list of those who think you succeeded in this.

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