Saturday, January 28, 2023

SPILLANE - King of Pulp Fiction


SPILLANE – King of Pulp Fiction

A Biography

By Max Allan Collins & James L. Traylor

Mysterious Press

337 pgs.


After reading this book, our initial reaction was that we’d actually been given the history of not one person, but two. Writers Collins and Traylor deftly interweave the story of both the real Mickey Spillane with that of his most famous fictional character, Mike Hammer. With both Collins and Traylor bonafide fans of both, what results is a truly intimate reflection of two equally fascinating and complex beings.  

Now allow us to backtrack a wee bit. In the early 60s we were in high school discovering so many different writers who forever change our lives. From Edgar Rice Burroughs to Robert E. Howard, Ed McBain to Richard S. Prather and Donald Hamilton. All were found the twenty-five cents paperbacks we devoured weekly. Way more interesting fare than what was dished out in our literature classics. Somehow, among all this reading, we missed Spillane until 1961 when we read a book called “The Deep.” It was a fast paced thriller and kept our attention all the way to the socko ending that pivoted entirely on the very last word. As a budding writer, that trick mesmerized us. Who was this Spillane guy who could so control a narrative that it hinged totally on a single word. Thus over time we began learning more and more about the writer and his tough guy private eye, Mike Hammer. Keep in mind; we’d yet to read a single Hammer book. 

We have vague memories of the Miller Lite TV commercial spots with Spillane and the curvy blonde and it was obvious he was spoofing himself. He seemed like a fun, likeable guy. In 1982 we saw the second film adaptation of “I Jury” with a young, rakish Armand Assante as Hammer. A far cry from the trenchcoat and pork-pie hat Hammer splashed all over his paperback covers. Still, we really like the film for what it was. No great classic of cinema, but an enjoyable way to spend a few hours in the theater.

No, our first actual introduction to Hammer and through him Spillane, came much later when Max Allan Collins began completing manuscripts the writer had left behind at the time of his death. We’d begun this review blog by then and Collins was most generous in either sending copies of these titles or having the publishers do so. Within a few short years, we found ourselves immersed in the tough, nourish world of Mike Hammer and we loved every second of it. Collins always included post-notes detailing which parts of the each book Hammer had done and which he’d added. His obvious sincerity in the tasks he’d undertaken only made us appreciate Spillane all the more. Thus sparking a true curiosity as to who this guy really was?

All of which leads us to “Spillane – King of Pulp Fiction.” Here is a complete accounting of one of the most talented, intriguing and complicated human beings to ever walk the planet. From his days in the military during World War II, to his initial forays into writing fiction from short stories for the pulps to comic books. It’s all here. His sudden rise to success with the first six Hammer books, to his persecution at the hands of the literary elite unmerciful in their criticisms. To them he was an unsophisticated hack who got lucky. Nothing could be further from the truth. Spillane was a product of his times, from childhood through the war years and their aftermath. Like the country he loved would never be same again, neither would the writer and the fiction he created totally reflected America’s changing mores.

The chronicling of Spillane’s frustration with Hollywood, it is clear all he ever wanted was to the Hammer from his pages on that giant silver screen. That it didn’t happen early on ultimately led him to assume the role much to delight of his millions of readers. Like his stories, in “The Girl Hunters” Spillane didn’t let them down. Which speaks volumes to his character as well. From bouts with various religions to several marriages, this biography rolls long like moonshiner’s coupe over lots of back country rutted roads. It’s all here, the fun, the heartache and eventually a man content with his own life at the end. Perhaps his greatest triumph after all.

“Spillane – King of Pulp Fiction” is an insightful read celebrating one of the greatest writers of all time. A tip of the fedora to Collins & Traylor. Masterful.

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