CHARLESTON, S.C. – Mickey Spillane, the macho mystery writer who wowed millions of readers with the shoot-'em-up sex and violence of gumshoe Mike Hammer, died Tuesday. He was 88.
Spillane's death was confirmed by Brad Stephens of Goldfinch Funeral Home in his hometown of Murrells Inlet. Details about his death were not immediately available.
After starting out in comic books Spillane wrote his first Mike Hammer novel, "I, the Jury," in 1946. Twelve more followed, with sales topping 100 million. Notable titles included "The Killing Man," "The Girl Hunters" and "One Lonely Night."
Many of these books were made into movies, including the classic film noir "Kiss Me, Deadly" and "The Girl Hunters," in which Spillane himself starred. Hammer stories were also featured on television in the series "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" and in made-for-television movies. In the 1980s, Spillane appeared in a string of Miller Lite beer commercials.
Besides the Hammer novels, Spillane wrote a dozen other books, including some award-winning volumes for young people.
Nonetheless, by the end of the 20th century, many of his novels were out of print or hard to find. In 2001, the New American Library began reissuing them.
As a stylist Spillane was no innovator; the prose was hard-boiled boilerplate. In a typical scene, from "The Big Kill," Hammer slugs out a little punk with "pig eyes."
"I snapped the side of the rod across his jaw and laid the flesh open to the bone," Spillane wrote. "I pounded his teeth back into his mouth with the end of the barrel ... and I took my own damn time about kicking him in the face. He smashed into the door and lay there bubbling. So I kicked him again and he stopped bubbling."
Mainstream critics had little use for Spillane, but he got his due in the mystery world, receiving lifetime achievement awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the Private Eye Writers of America.
Spillane, a bearish man who wrote on an old manual Smith Corona, always claimed he didn't care about reviews. He considered himself a "writer" as opposed to an "author," defining a writer as someone whose books sell.
"This is an income-generating job," he told The Associated Press during a 2001 interview. "Fame was never anything to me unless it afforded me a good livelihood."
Spillane was born Frank Morrison Spillane on March 9, 1918, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. He grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., and attended Fort Hayes State College in Kansas where he was a standout swimmer before beginning his career writing for magazines.
He had always liked police stories — an uncle was a cop — and in his pre-Hammer days he created a comic book detective named Mike Danger. At the time, the early 1940s, he was scribing for Batman, SubMariner and other comics.
"I wanted to get away from the flying heroes and I had the prototype cop," Spillane said.
Danger never saw print. World War II broke out and Spillane enlisted. When he came home, he needed $1,000 to buy some land and thought novels the best way to go. Within three weeks, he had completed "I, the Jury" and sent it to Dutton. The editors there doubted the writing, but not the market for it; a literary franchise began. His books helped reveal the power of the paperback market and became so popular they were parodied in movies, including the Fred Astaire musical "The Band Wagon."
He was a quintessential Cold War writer, an unconditional believer in good and evil. He was also a rare political conservative in the book world. Communists were villains in his work and liberals took some hits as well. He was not above using crude racial and sexual stereotypes.
Viewed by some as a precursor to Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, Spillane's Hammer was a loner contemptuous of the "tedious process" of the jury system, choosing instead to enforce the law on his own murderous terms. His novels were attacked for their violence and vigilantism— one critic said "I, the Jury" belonged in "Gestapo training school" — but some defended them as the most shameless kind of pleasure.
"Spillane is like eating takeout fried chicken: so much fun to consume, but you can feel those lowlife grease-induced zits rising before you've finished the first drumstick," Sally Eckhoff wrote in the liberal weekly The Village Voice.
The Hammer novels had a couple of recurring characters: Pat, the honest, but slow-moving cop, and Velda, Mike's faithful secretary. Like so many women in Hammer's life, Velda was a looker, and burning for love.
"Velda was watching me with the tip of her tongue clenched between her teeth," Spillane wrote in "Vengeance is Mine!", an early Hammer novel.
"There wasn't any kitten-softness about her now. She was big and she was lovely, with the kind of curves that made you want to turn around and have another look. The lush fullness of her lips had tightened into the faintest kind of snarl and her eyes were the carnivorous eyes you could expect to see in the jungle watching you from behind a clump of bushes."
While the Hammer books were set in New York, Spillane was a longtime resident of Murrells Inlet, a coastal community near Myrtle Beach.
He moved to South Carolina in 1954 when the area, now jammed with motels and tourist attractions, was still predominantly tobacco and corn fields.
Spillane said he fell in love with the long stretches of deserted beaches when he first saw the area from an airplane.
The writer, who became a Jehovah's Witness in 1951 and helped build the group's Kingdom Hall in Murrells Inlet, spent his time boating and fishing when he wasn't writing. In the 1950s, he also worked as a circus performer, allowing himself to be shot out of a cannon and appearing in the circus film "Ring of Fear."
The home where he lived for 35 years was destroyed by the 135 mph winds of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
Married three times, Spillane was the father of four children.