Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her naked belly where the bullet went in.
'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.
That's how Mickey Spillane ended his first Mike Hammer novel. The story of Hammer and his creator begins in Brooklyn exactly one hundred years ago - March 9th 1918 - with the birth of "Frank Morrison Spillane", as his Scots Protestant mother put on the birth certificate. For the baptism, his dad, an Irish Catholic bartender, amended "Morrison" to "Michael". As a kid, he was called "Frank". But Frank Morrison/Michael eventually decided to go for Mickey, and so did the dames. "Women," he claimed, with considerable supporting evidence, "like the name Mickey."
He'd got to test the proposition as a lifeguard at Breezy Point in Queens, as a trampolinist with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, and as a World War Two fighter pilot. But he wanted to write, and so he submitted his stories to comic books, and wound up writing for all the big guys - Superman, Batman, the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Captain Marvel. In 1946, he came up with a comic-book detective called "Mike Danger" and a Gal Friday called Holly who was easy on the eyes and fierce in her devotion. Nobody was interested, so the following year he changed Mike Danger to "Mike Hammer" and Holly to "Velda" and put them in a story with no pictures or speech balloons. Mike Hammer talked tough, drank hard, strong-armed dames, and left rats and punks bleeding on sidewalks and barroom floors. The first novel flaunted the private eye's approach to justice in its very title: I, The Jury. His wartime buddy, who lost an arm saving Hammer's life in the Pacific, has been offed by some scum, and the gumshoe makes a solemn vow to the corpse strewn across the bed:
I'm going to get the louse that killed you. He won't sit in the chair. He won't hang. He will die exactly as you died, with a .45 slug in the gut, just a little below the belly button.
He keeps his promise.
Spillane wrote the book in nine days. Raymond Chandler, creator of Philip Marlowe and an alumnus (along with P G Wodehouse) of Dulwich College in south London, disliked the way literary critics put all the hardboiled shamuses into one basket. "Pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff," he sneered of Spillane. The new kid on the block was happy to play along: He never put men with moustaches who drank cognac into his books, he said, because he didn't know how to spell those words. In 1966 his automobile was stolen along with the only manuscript of his next Hammer yarn sitting on the passenger seat. Spillane mourned the loss of the car, but shrugged off the book: That was merely "another three days' work" of re-dictating off the top of his head.
As they say on Broadway, nobody likes it but the public: In 1956 a ranking of the all-time bestselling American fiction found that six of the top ten books were by Spillane; a quarter-century later the all-time top fifteen boasted seven of his titles. Sales aside, I disagree with Chandler: I don't think you can love the English language and not love what Mickey Spillane does with it. Once, for a satirical column about the monumental uselessness of the British police, I attempted a Spillane parody based on the whimsical notion of Mike Hammer taking a job with some slothful pen-pushing paperwork-shuffling English constabulary. I discovered, like many would-be parodists (Mordecai Richler, for example, who attempted something similar for a chapter in Solomon Gursky Was Here) that writing Spillane is a lot harder than reading it. He's got so much precision in even the most unimportant sentences. This is what I wound up with:
It was one of those evenings when the fog comes down and wraps itself around the world like a five-dollar whore at the end of a slow week. All I saw was the dame standing there under the sodium light in a dress that was too tight last year. The cold, clammy night glistened on her full, round breasts.
'Help, help,' she whimpered. 'I've just been attacked. They pulled me out of my car and stole my handbag.' Now I knew why I'd noticed her breasts. Her buttons were ripped off, and those babies were coming out to play.
'Relax, honey,' I told her. 'Call the Violent Assault Hotline during office hours, and we'll send someone over to take a statement early next week.'
'But they're in the next street, dividing up the cash. If we hurry, we can catch them.'
I slapped her hard. 'I don't hurry, baby, except when I'm on my way home with a ham and pepperoni and doing 120 in a residential street.'
She pressed herself against me and the heat of her skin seared my shirt. 'But you're Mike Hammer.' I could feel the rise and fall of her bazoongas against the bruises on my ribcage. I'd been manning the random breathalyser checkpoint, and some punk accountant had opened the door of his Mondeo too quickly. This tomato was better than anything the doc had prescribed. 'You're the hardest-boiled dick on the South Midlands (North) Force,' she purred in my chest hair. 'I hear you killed a couple of guys.'
'Yeah, but only when I was doing 120 in a residential street. And you should have seen the paperwork afterwards.'
Mike Hammer would seem a natural for Hollywood, except that, as with Bertie Wooster, the authorial voice is so strong and present that, without it, sixty per cent of the fun is gone. Round about the time my old comrade Clive Exton was figuring out a solution to the Wodehousian prose for "Jeeves & Wooster", American TV was attempting the same for Spillane with the Stacy Keach "Mike Hammer" series. I like Keach as an actor, but I mostly remember him falling off the tightrope every other night in the national tour of Barnum: He's game but not always convincing. His Hammer was affable and consciously anachronistic, but is nevertheless the first face that comes to mind if you raise the question of screen Spillane.
Before Keach, it was Ralph Meeker in Robert Aldrich's 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly, an adaptation of Kiss Me, Deadly. Hammer once asserted his authorial rights so aggressively that an entire 50,000 print run of Kiss Me, Deadly had to be pulped because on the cover someone had accidentally left the comma out of the title. You can imagine how he felt when he found out Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly had consciously eighty-sixed the comma, and then discovered, after combing through the fine print of his movie contract, that it gave him no say over the fine print of the movie. He must also have been unnerved, as a guy who named his characters "Mike Danger" and "Mike Hammer", to have wound up with a fellow called "Ralph Meeker". Belying his moniker, Meeker came over impressively macho, if utterly charmless. But you can tell he and Aldrich don't buy Spillane and Hammer: Jean-Luc Godard et al like Aldrich's picture for all the reasons Spillane hated it - it's a post-modern meditation on hardboilery rather than the real thing.
By the time Ralph Meeker hit the fleapits of the nation, Spillane was three years into what would prove to be a decade-long hiatus, not just from Hammer but from any writing at all. The cause is said to be his decision, in 1952, to become a Jehovah's Witness. Whatever the truth of that, in 1962 he returned to the airport bookstands with The Girl Hunters, and provides a plausible explanation as to why our hero has been out of circulation all this time. Since 1947 Hammer had been an industrial-strength swordsman for whom broads are a dime-a-dozen, but his secretary Velda, the gal with the million-dollar legs, was a rare jane he held in higher esteem (although she'd be a #MeToo shoo-in these days). In the backstory to the novel, Velda was supposedly killed on a botched job, and Hammer went to pieces: he's now a booze-sodden bum who's been sleeping rough, face-down in the gutters, for the last seven years.
They filmed it almost immediately, with Roy Rowland directing a Spillane screenplay that sticks close to the book. It's a slightly wacky picture, because it's British-produced. Which means that, although the story is set in New York, it's shot in London. If you think that's weird, well, the original plan was to film it in Dublin, which would have looked even odder. So the cast for the most part are either British subjects doing Yank accents plus a few actual American actors resident in the UK. The girl - a seductive senator's widow - is Shirley Eaton, who wisely retained the posh-totty voice with which all graduates of the Aida Foster Theatre School on the Finchley Road depart (Jean Simmons, Kate O'Mara, Elaine Paige) - with the lone exception (in my experience) of Cockney sparrow Barbara Windsor. The cast isn't bad, but the buildings and cars and street furniture and even the tailoring never look quite right - like a space alien's reconstruction of an American landscape after reading a description of it in a not terribly good travel guide.
But Spillane didn't care. What mattered about the film is who played Hammer, and this time his creator took no chances of some lesser, Meeker type screwing up the part. So in The Girl Hunters Mike Hammer is played by ...Mickey Spillane. In the entire annals of literature, has this ever happened before? Did Raymond Chandler ever play Philip Marlowe? Did Wodehouse play Wooster? Did L M Montgomery play Anne of Green Gables? Bram Stoker Dracula or Mary Shelley Frankenstein? Or is this the only occasion in which the writer of the novel has played the central character on screen? In the books Spillane had put a fair part of himself in Hammer - to the point where Mike is Mickey, save that the latter is teetotal and the former is a foot taller. Roy Rowland solved the latter problem by surrounding Spillane with shorter actors, and the former problem is never an issue: Spillane handles a glass like a man born to it (as he would likewise do with Miller Lite bottles in Eighties TV commercials).
He's not a movie star - although he's not dissimilar to, say, a Chris Penn: the doughy-faced, no-neck kind of hard man - like a real-life private eye who's spent too many nights in parked cars down the street chewing on cold hamburgers. But it's black-and-white, which suited Spillane, as in real life he only ever wore black and white. So he looks like a guy who inhabits the boxy suits and hats, rather than being lowered into his costume by his valet ten minutes before shooting. He doesn't over-think it, he just gets on with it. There's a scene where the bikini-clad Shirley Eaton is sunbathing on a lilo in the middle of her swimming pool, and, eyes closed, is unaware that Hammer has shown up. He grabs a garden implement and quietly pulls the mattress in to shore before she's aware of what's happening. He's not hot, not really sexy, but it's a cool move, and you can see why the ladies would be attracted to a man that assured. He has a higher voice than you'd want in a tough guy, but the flat, toneless line-readings are so unactorly they're super-convincing: he handles the dialogue not as if he wrote it, but as if no one wrote it at all - as if he's just on a case saying what guys on a case say. So Miss Eaton's senatorial widow asks him: "If I don't talk, will you belt me?"
"Hell," says Hammer, "I never hit dames..." She looks skeptical, and he finishes the thought: "...I kick 'em."
Time magazine reported from the set on Spillane's committed approach to his acting:
In the first take of a passionate scene, Mickey and Shirley were stretched out on a couch when something went wrong with the lighting. 'Cut,' said the director. Not Mickey. 'We stayed there rehearsing for an hour while they changed the lights,' he remembers. 'That was Method acting, boy. The Spillane method.'
That wasn't quite the way Miss Eaton recalled it to me a third of a century later, but I'm willing to cut him some slack: to a degree few authors manage, he lived like a star. He liked the blonde with the great ass they put on the cover of one of his books, so he called the publisher and asked them to send her over. She was a nightclub canary called Sherri, and by the time of the next book she was the second Mrs Spillane. "They sent her over, and I never sent her back" - well, not for a couple of decades. In 1972 he put her nude on the front of The Erection Set - which, again, is not an honor ever accorded Lady Wodehouse or Mrs Chandler.
After finishing The Girl Hunters, Shirley Eaton moved on to her next film and her most memorable role - as the lily who winds up gilded to death in Goldfinger. Mickey Spillane was unperturbed by Ian Fleming. "I don't worry about him," he said. "He's a gourmet" - which was, in his book, a sneer: "Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar." They staggered the openings in those days. The first Bond film, Dr No, premiered in Britain in 1962, but it didn't reach America until seven months later - May 1963, in Denver, and then June in New York and other cities, exactly the same time The Girl Hunters opened. The Spillane film got most of the pre-publicity, but 007 was a phenomenon.
Spillane was a friend of Ayn Rand, and in the Fifties Mike Hammer fought Commies, very zealously: in One Lonely Night he grabs a machine-gun and mows down 40 reds, which was an editorial compromise; in the first draft, he'd machine-gunned 80 of 'em. But Bond reconfigured the formula: the new guys fought the Cold War in tuxedos with wry quips and gourmet tastes; whatever their own inclinations, moviegoers preferred to see men who consumed caviar, not salted peanuts. And, by the time the tough guys returned, the hardboiled dialogue had been boiled down to: "Yippi-ki-ay, muthaf**ker!"
I miss the old-school hardboilers. Obviously, it's an invented, stylized, heightened form of dialogue, as artificial as recitative or any other dramatic convention, and with a certain musicality:
HAMMER: You're never around when I need you.
VELDA: You never need me when I'm around.
But it was a plausible and appealing voice for tough guys. Today in the absence of such conventions we have supposed verisimilitude, so that, instead of hard men saying "I've had some punks tougher than you'll ever be on the end of a gun and I pulled the trigger just to watch their expressions change", they say f**k-f**k-f**ketty-f**k all night long, and we think that's what makes it "real".
Is it? Do people in movies talk like that because people in life do? Or vice-versa? Either way, I prefer a writer who makes million-dollar poetry from two-bit punks.
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