Target Spillane

July 12th, 2011 by Max Allan Collins

The current issue of MYSTERY SCENE has a splashy Lawrence Block piece on Mickey Spillane. At the magazine’s editor’s request, I offered a few corrections to a reading list to accompany what I assumed would be a career overview of Mickey. Unfortunately it’s a patronizing, smugly casual dismissal of one fine writer’s work by another. This despite Block admitting he’s never much cared for (or read much of) Mickey’s work, ultimately dismissing it as unreadable “crap,” which makes me wonder why exactly a reading list was provided at all. There’s a particularly unfair discussion of Mickey’s famous line, “I’m a writer, not an author,” with Block pretending to be confused about what Mickey meant – that line (one of Mickey’s most frequently quoted) was almost always followed up by an explanation wherein Mickey cited the likes of one-book wonders like Margaret Mitchell or memoir-writing political figures like Churchill as “authors.” Writers, Mickey said, made a career of it. Block interprets the quote as meaning Mickey didn’t reach for the high literary standards of an “author” (Block might easily – and unfairly – be similarly dismissed due to his softcore porn roots and a career far more prolific than Spillane’s). He accepts the conventional wisdom that only the seven early novels are even worth mention, showing no signs he has read any of the later books (including THE TWISTED THING, which was actually the second Hammer novel written, though not published till 1966). He demeans Mickey’s selection as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America by giving his version of backroom discussions between two groups: one that thought Mickey was lousy and a disgrace to the genre, and another that thought Mickey was lousy but had been too commercially important to ignore (Block places himself in the latter camp). Members of both groups were anxious enough to pose for smiling photographs with celebrity Mickey at the Edgars banquet, like the one Block uses to illustrate his piece (though Mickey’s lovely wife Jane goes unidentified in the photo). Block closes out with a postscript saying that Mickey was “a nice guy,” sort of the “you don’t sweat much for a big old fat girl” moment.

I can’t imagine MYSTERY SCENE publishing a piece about any other major writer in the field that takes the approach of this one. “Agatha Christie wrote tripe, but she was a fun old gal at parties.” Who was it that said, “Pfui?”

Sixty-four years later, and the attacks on Mickey just never end, this one published in a magazine I admire and respect, from a writer I have long admired and respected. In the same issue, an article by Tom Nolan discusses current continuations of famous series characters, and my recent fairly high-profile Mike Hammer efforts are not mentioned though the Sam Spade book by Joe Gores (from several years back by a writer who has since passed away) is discussed alongside Jeff Deaver’s new 007 book. A mention in that piece – or perhaps a review of KISS HER GOODBYE, which has elsewhere received a lot of praise and attention – might have balanced things out a bit. Block mentions me at the top of his article, suggesting with false modesty that I would be more qualified to write the piece he’s about to undertake. Of course, I wasn’t asked by MYSTERY SCENE to write such a piece – Block was – and my role (minor) was merely to clairfy some publication data. Ironically, ads by publishers (and authors, including myself) involved in the current Spillane revival, are scattered throughout what is not my favorite issue of MYSTERY SCENE. (It should be noted that advertisers not having an impact on editorial content in a magazine is a positive, not a negative. An odd footnote is that Lawrence Block shares a publisher — Hard Case Crime — with Mickey and me.)

A much better new piece on Mickey – which also discusses the “I’m a writer, not an author” quote – can be found here.

I’m delighted to guide you to an excellent review of my son Nathan’s book SUMMER, FIREWORKS AND MY CORPSE from that very tough-minded critic, David Rachels. This is Nate’s translation for Viz of Otsuichi’s horror/noir tales.

And I’m also delighted to report that the long-postponed QUARRY’S EX got a very nice review from PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY:

Set in 1980, Collins’s lean, sardonic 10th noir featuring the killer-for-hire who uses the pseudonym Quarry (after Quarry in the Middle) finds Quarry in Boot Hill, Nev., earning his keep in an unusual way. Drawing on his knowledge of the hit-man world derived from his years of working for a murder middleman known as the Broker, Quarry identifies intended targets of hits, then charges a hefty fee to eliminate the hired guns out to kill them. When he learns of a plot against B-movie director Arthur Stockwell, Quarry discovers that Stockwell’s wife is all too familiar–his ex-wife, Joni, whose betrayal led the Vietnam vet to use his murderous talents in civilian life. Leary of coincidence, Quarry works to understand how he can fulfill his professional obligation to Stockwell without Joni getting caught in the middle, even as he wonders whether she’s behind the contract. Collins amply leavens the violence with wit. (Sept.)

Quarry's Ex

Ron Fortier, a writer of comics and prose his own talented self, wrote a lovely review of the upcoming Nate Heller, BYE BYE, BABY. It’s always a thrill when a reader (and in this case a reviewer) really “gets it.” Ron, I’ve been saying that this is the first Heller in a decade, but it’s really only nine years.

An interview I gave a few years ago about ROAD TO PERDITION 2: ON THE ROAD has popped up. This probably is getting space because in addition to the upcoming RETURN TO PERDITION, new editions of ROAD TO PERDITION and RTP: ON THE ROAD will be published soon.

Sean Leary, a talented writer from the Quad Cities, has written a nice piece on the thriller collaborations by Matt Clemens and me, specifically NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU.

And this overview of upcoming Hard Case Crime publications goes out of its way to give my stuff plenty of space.

The KISS ME DEADLY Criterion DVD/Blu-ray reviews just keep a’comin’…with nice things about my new cut of MIKE HAMMER’S MICKEY SPILLANE. Check this one out, and this one, too.

Finally, here’s a strong review of KISS HER GOODBYE at the always fascinating Noir Journal.

Oh, in case you haven’t seen the news elsewhere online, Matt and I did not win the Thriller award for Best Paperback (YOU CAN’T STOP ME), nor did I win for my Spillane short story (“A Long Time Dead”). But I was the only writer to lose twice!


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9 Responses to “Target Spillane”

  1. Bill says:

    Sad about Block-particularly since he did a nice intro to a Hammer collection,saying that the books didn’t really NEED an intro. I remember an sf writer doing an intro to a Philip K. Dick collection and basically said”Why aren’t you worshipping ME instead of this guy?”

  2. Brian_Drake says:

    One thing my father taught me was that people who envy others will go out of their way to attack them. Mickey is, I think, not only envied because of his success, but because of his personality. From everything I’ve read, and seen of him on the television (where he *owned* the audience), he was as big an extrovert as one could be, confident, sure of himself–everything most people are *not*. That, more than anything else, offends the lesser mortals. I’ve seen Lawrence Block on TV. Lawrence Block is no Mickey Spillane.

    Block made smaller anti-Spillane remarks in “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” which disappointed me. I thought the sucker-punch endings to some of the early Scudder books were Spillane influenced but I guess not.

    Can you really take a guy who still wears a beret seriously? Do you know what Mickey would do with that beret? I rest my case.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Brian…you too, Bill.

    It’s not my intent to bash Larry Block, who is a really good writer and who has done me kindnesses over the years, among them appearing in my Spillane documentary. The writing book you mention, Brian, is a good one; I used to follow his WRITER’S DIGEST column faithfully. My beef is solely with the piece he wrote for MYSTERY SCENE, not because it’s critical of Mickey — all writers are fair game — but because of the tone, and its pretense to be a sort of tribute when its effect (and possibly intent) was to diminish.

    I largely curtailed reviewing films when I began writing and sometimes directing them. I have almost never reviewed other mystery writers’ books (and when I have, the reviews were favorable). Tony Hillerman wrote a bad review of an early Heller novel and it taught me something — first, I felt a guy of Hillerman’s stature had no business picking on somebody smaller than him; second, I knew him a little and it seemed at least mildly a personal betrayal; third, it ruined his books for me. So I decided not to write reviews of other writers — bottom line, it lacks grace. If I run an Italian restaurant, I shouldn’t review the food at other Italian restaurants (so to speak). But that’s my personal rule and I have no right to impose it on others. Some would say, who better than an Italian chef to judge Italian food?

    Block is very good writer, often a terrific one. But none of his books is likely to last as long as I, THE JURY (which isn’t even one of the better early Hammers). Matt Scudder will never be as famous as Mike Hammer. That probably, on some level, does grate. A lot of fans today would prefer Scudder, and would consider Block a superior writer — Mickey’s place in the genre, and Hammer’s, is in part due to the innovative nature of the Spillane approach, and that Mick was in the right place at the right time with the right stuff.

    The MWA aspect of the Block piece indicates how much the several generations of mystery writers before mine envied and sometimes despised Mickey. That was another thing that really troubled me about the Block piece — he is a Grand Master. Would he appreciate somebody revealing backroom disagreements about whether he deserved his Grand Master award? The whole thing gave me a sick feeling.

    Still, I probably over-reacted, and I would be unhappy if any further discussion here degenerated into put-downs of Lawrence Block, who doesn’t deserve that kind of thing any more than Mickey did. Beret or no beret.

  4. Brian_Drake says:

    Max, please forgive my own overreaction… it appears as if I’m guilty of what I’m criticizing. It wouldn’t be the first time. Every time something like this comes up it makes me grit my teeth. I like Block, too. I think that’s why this burns a little hotter than if another critic had said it.

  5. Hey, Brian, I wasn’t criticizing you or indicating yours was an over-reaction. I just wanted to head off a series of comments from others turning this into a “get” Larry Block website.

    You should have seen my post before I toned it down half a dozen times (I even revised it once after I first posted it). These gratuitous attacks on Spillane have been going on for decades…for many decades…and they have always made me furious. I once very nearly got into a fist fight over it, and there have been screaming matches. Always it comes back to Spillane being so successful, he should expect criticism, and that any writer is fair game. These would be good points if the criticism hadn’t been so unfair and over-the-top over the years. The current KISS ME DEADLY Criterion release has an insert booklet by someone who dislikes Spillane without apparently having ever read him, and quotes from some of the shrill attacks of the day by other critics who apparently never read him.

    Jim Traylor and I, working on ONE LONELY KNIGHT, noticed that a single violent paragraph in THE BIG KILL — fairly typical of Mickey’s action scenes — kept getting used over and over again in Spillane attacks. The same paragraph. What does this mean? The critics were reading each other, not Mickey.

    The attacks were based on politics — though only two Hammer novels deal with Cold War themes, neither in a terribly ideological fashion — and of course what then seemed to be outrageous sex and violence. There was also a hint of class warfare: Hammer, like Mickey, was a t-shirt-wearing, beer-drinking working class guy…not Phillip Marlowe playing chess in his lonely monk-like quarters. A guy who liked to ogle dames and sometimes do something about it…hardly a misogynist, as often claimed, and a sexist only by standards developed decades later. Hammer’s supposed racism and homophobia are probably a little less overt than Chandler’s…though nobody gives Chandler a bad time.

    There is a lovely irony that I have become, in my lifetime, Mickey’s chief defender. As you know, Brian, I am not a conservative — I’m very much left of center — and that gives me a unique perspective on all this foolish bashing based on Mick’s supposed right-wing politics. Never mind that as a Jehovah’s Witness, Mick didn’t even vote. It’s always been unfair and out of line, and when I sniff out the old Mickey bashing tactics in play again, I will not hesitate to do something about it. Even when it’s a fine writer like Larry Block, who should frankly know better.

  6. Brian_Drake says:

    Max, You also should have seen *my* post before I posted it. :) You mean the head-bashing “he stopped bubbling” paragraph from THE BIG KILL, right? Either the critics are only reading each other, or that is the only paragraph they can find that makes their point (it’s the only one I’ve seen used, too; Eddie Muller called it “pure pornography” which really made my head hurt). There is another sequence in that book that is worthy of note but nobody ever mentions it. Hammer lures two killers into a dark room and tricks one into shooting the other and then shoots the survivor, before which he says, “You shot your own guy, Jack” or something. Mickey went for a subtle approach in that sequence, but, in my mind’s eye, it is more intense, if less violent, than the head-bashing, and is the scene I remember the most (after the ending, of course) and like to reread whenever I’m flipping through that book.

    I think it’s interesting that Mickey Spillane not only makes the critics scream but his readers scream in defense. Unlike you I never met Mickey; I only know him through his books and television and magazine appearances. But when I discovered Mickey in high school it was a reading experience like no other–forget the sex and violence which was tame compared to the men’s adventure books I had read previously. What stood out was the terrific storytelling. I vividly remember the first time I read “Vengeance Is Mine” where I knew he was fixin’ to have a shocker revelation so I covered the last pages with one hand and read one line at a time. When I hit that beautiful final line… that made me a fan for life! How could anybody dislike a guy who could write like that?

    I don’t remember Block’s books as well as I remember Mickey’s, though the early Scudder books are terrific and the ending of “Eight Million Ways to Die” made me cry because it captured the mind of an alcoholic so well. I haven’t read any Scudder book that followed. His story ended at that last AA meeting. I am sure that is my loss. But I’m first in line (or on-line) to buy anything new from Mickey.

  7. dan luft says:

    You have to look at yourself as a success on some level that Spillane is still a discussed writer at all. Sure he was the most popular but he also suffered the declining sales like many bestselling writers of his generation. I don’t think he wrote a bestseller after the 1970s. If anyone wrote an article dismissing Donald Hamilton of Alistair Maclean they would first have to explain who those writers were. Spillane is in print (with new things coming out) and his e-books are for sale at 6 bucks a pop. Hamilton, Maclean and a huge bunch of other bestselling writers are mostly just gone from popular consciousness.

  8. Very good point.

    Mickey’s last bestsellers were in the early ’70s. Of course, he stopped writing then (other than his couple of kids’ books). His later Mike Hammer novels, THE KILLING MAN and BLACK ALLEY, were bestsellers in mystery terms, and his TV commericals (twenty years for Miller Lite) and the Stacy Keach TV Hammer helped keep Mickey and Mike a long-term part of American pop culture…and fueled reprint sales of the books.

    Who knows what we’d be discussing if Mickey hadn’t essentially hung it up in the seventies? Several of the books I’m completing were written during this unproflific publishing period — DEAD STREET, KISS HER GOODBYE, and KING OF THE WEEDS (the latter I will eventually get to).

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