Sunday, 18 January 2009
HAMMER, SPILLANE AND COLLINS -An hardboiled interview
Chandler loathed the brutal no nonsense Mike Hammer, seeing him as a sadistic version of his knight errant Marlowe and critics were no kinder and would draw attention to the violence and red baiting of Mickey Spillane's pugilistic gumshoe. In fact the books were often sneered upon and treated almost as pornography but that didn't stop them selling like hot cakes.
Course these days things are different and Hammer is seen as a quintessential part of the genre, as important as Marlowe and Sam Spade in the growth of the genre as it stands today.
Course the fact that Spillane was the best selling mystery writer of the last century may have had a lot to do with the criticism - critics love to shoot down a success story.
For many years one voice spoke louder than most at extolling the virtues of Mickey and Mike Hammer and that was the tones of Road to Perdition author, Max Allan Collins.
Max had always been a fan and wrote scores of letters to the author and years later when he met his hero, Spillane remembered the letters and remarked that they used to write. Max then replied - "Sure a hundred letters from me and one from you."
Spillane laughed at that and a friendship, built on mutual respect and in many ways a meeting of minds, was formed. When Spillane passed away in 2006 he had already placed his legacy in safe hands, by handing Max a pile of unfinished manuscripts, notes and such.
I wondered what it was about Spillane that had appealed to the young Max ?
"I began reading Mickey at an early age -- thirteen -- and I'm sure the exciting, superficial aspects of his work, the sex and violence, were key. I'd gotten interested in private eye fiction thanks to a spate of TV shows in the late '50s and early '60s, PETER GUNN, 77 SUNSET STRIP, PERRY MASON and the original MIKE HAMMER with Darren McGavin. I started reading novels by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but was always attracted by the dramatic covers of the Hammer paperbacks on the book racks. Of course, these had a reputation as "dirty books," so for a while I didn't dare buy one. In fact, the first time I bought a Mike Hammer paperback, I was out of town, on vacation with my parents...and lied about my age.
What has kept me a Spillane fan all these years is much more than the sex and violence -- the former seems tame by contemporary standards, although frankly the violence is as potent as ever -- those early books still shock in that regard. What Mickey had, particularly in the first seven novels, was a vivid, expressionistic style, a noir poetry, that combined with his compelling first-person portrait of Hammer presented something unique in the genre. Even Mickey's critics, and they've been legion, have credited him with incredible narrative drive. He probably wrote the best beginnings and endings of any popular writer."
So to go from fan to friend - how did this work out?
"It grew out of my becoming a defender of his work. In the 1950s, Spillane was blamed for the decline of literature and the rise of juvenile delinquency, among other absurdities. As a kid, I'd been shocked to find out that Mickey did not share the generally favorable critical appraisal that Hammett and Chandler routinely received, and I wrote any number of reviews and articles, singing his praises. I began publishing my own novels in 1973, and I sent the first two to Mickey, who responded with a warm letter, welcoming me to the profession.
In 1981, the big mystery fan convention, Bouchercon -- named for New York Times critic Anthony Boucher, who had often attacked Spillane -- was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee is the home of Miller Beer, and Mickey was at the time in the midst of a big TV commercial campaign as a spokesperson for Miller Lite -- these were clever commercial spots with Mickey essentially playing Mike Hammer in trenchcoat and fedora. The Bouchercon people wanted to have Mickey as a guest of honor and worked through Miller Beer to make that happen. And I was recruited, as the "Mickey Spillane guy," to be the con's liaison with Mick. We did a two-man interview that was hugely attended, as Mickey had never appeared at a Bouchercon or any kind of fan event before.
Anyway, he and I hit it off, and he invited me to visit him at his South Carolina home on the oceanfront -- actually, an inlet off the ocean. The first visit was in 1982, I believe, the first of many. Most of Mickey's friends were local people with no connection to writing -- from car mechanics to dentists -- and I represented somebody he could talk to about the craft and profession of fiction-writing."
Max Allan Collins is a successful writer - he was responsible for the original graphic novel which became the movie Road to Perdition which is probably still his best known work. But he's produced scores of graphic novels and novels including the successful Nate Heller and Quarry series. He's responsible for many CSI novel tie-ins and recently his tie-in novel for American Gangster sat on the New York Times Bestseller lists and that's not to mention film production.
Oh and he did the Dick Tracy comic strip for a great number of years.
He also seems to have won at one time or other every award the genre can bestow. But for all this success being handed the manuscripts of Mickey's unfinished works must have been daunting.
"It's a huge sense of responsibility, but I am not intimidated. I have unwittingly trained for this moment my entire professional career and before that. I'd done a number of projects with Mickey -- we co-edited numerous anthologies and did a comic book together that ran several years -- so his belief in me, while incredibly gratifying, was no surprise. The real sense of responsibility divides in two -- first, handling these works in a way that I think would please and satisfy Mickey; and second, creating something that will resonate with contemporary readers, so that the books will be successful enough that all of them can be done. In particular, there were six substantial Hammer novel manuscripts, of which GOLIATH BONE is the first, and my minimum goal here is to get all six out there on book shelves. Imagine if Agatha Christie had left behind substantial portions of half a dozen Poirot and/or Marple novels -- with a writer of that stature, you don't just leave them in the file or a trunk. "
So far the Spillane/Collins partnership has resulted in Dead Street from Hardcase crime and a new Mike Hammer novel, The Goliath Bone. So what comes next?
"I have completed the second novel, THE BIG BANG, which is set in the mid-1960s, when Mickey began it. The idea is to set each book in the period Mickey conceived it. The third book will probably be KISS HER GOODBYE, a novel Mickey worked on in the '80s. If we're lucky enough to get a second three-book contract, what will follow will be COMPLEX 90, another mid-'60s story and a sequel to Mickey's THE GIRL HUNTERS, having to do with Russian spies; then LADY, GO DIE, which is a particularly exciting project, because it's a manuscript Mickey started in 1948 as the second Hammer novel, right after I, THE JURY; and finally KING OF THE WEEDS, the novel Mickey had originally intended to be the last Hammer novel, until he put it aside to write the post 9/11 novel, GOLIATH BONE.
After that, if readers want more, there are another half dozen smaller fragments -- a chapter or two with notes, in most cases -- from which I could develop Hammer novels. But the six I've mentioned are all substantial manuscripts -- 100 pages or more, often with notes, sometimes with roughed-out final scenes. Mickey often worked out the ending first."
The Goliath Bone, see my review on the Tainted Archive, was a welcome return for the hard as nails private eye and also gave us a happy ending to the on off Hammer/Velda relationship. How much of the book was completed when Collins received the manuscript?
"Mickey had done ten of twelve chapters, plus about half of the last chapter. But he knew he was working against the clock, ill as he was, and these were rough-draft for the most part, shorter than his usual chapters. So my job was fleshing things out in an unobtrusive way. There isn't a chapter that doesn't have Spillane material in it. This was possible because I also found a three-chapter false start in his papers, which allowed me to work some of that material in, as well."
The Mike Hammer books were often accused of being too right wing and the new book doesn't shy away from the odd political comment. Was Max worried about this in today's inane world where political correctness is censoring the language and destroying individualism?
"My politics are not Mickey's politics, but my responsibility was to honor his views, and I did. The Mike Hammer character was a classic outsider, always depicted by Mickey as a guy with friends of various ethnicity's -- he fought for the little guy, remember. There are some racist comments about Muslims in the book, but they come from the mouths of characters other than Hammer himself, our hero. He does make an outrageous statement late in the book, to a dying terrorist, and that's pure Mickey."
I wonder what it was like to have Mickey Spillane as a friend - I've seen video footage of him and he seems, what we would call in the UK - quite a character. What was he like?
"He was quite a character by American standards as well. He was a very unpretentious guy, warm and funny -- my wife often characterized him as a scamp, because he liked to tease and shock. But what a sweetheart -- generous and down to earth, and probably the most gracious celebrity you'd ever meet. He always had time for, as he put it, his "customers."
He would put himself down and laugh about the bad critical reception -- he called himself a "writer," not an "author," said he was "the chewing gum of modern literature." But that was a defense mechanism. Privately, he and I spoke about the art and craft of writing, and his love for language, his enthusiasm for sheer storytelling, was at the center of his being."
Eventually Collins will exhaust the unpublished Spillane material. Are there plans to continue Mike Hammer then as original works?
"There are so many fragments that there were never be a need for me to create a brand-new Hammer story. Anything I do will have a basis in something Mickey started to develop. Beyond the first six "new" novels, another six or seven are possible, as well as potentially four or five short stories -- I've already done one short story. Chronologically, GOLIATH BONE is the last novel. All the rest will be set in period, based upon when Mickey conceived them.
Beyond this, there are a number of non-Hammer novels, including a half-completed sequel to THE DELTA FACTOR, and a completed novella called THE LAST STAND. Lots of interesting things. But since Mike Hammer is, as Mickey put it, his "bread and butter character," the emphasis at first will be on Hammer."
Mickey Spillane was never considered in the top rank among the likes of Chandler and Hammett but in pacing, I think he was superior to both. I wondered what Max's thoughts on this were?
"The shocking content of the early books turned critics and social commentators against him. Mickey is the guy who opened the door on sex and violence in popular fiction -- it all flows from him, including and in particular James Bond and Ian Fleming. In America, the right wing attacked Mickey for what was then shocking sexuality; and the left wing were deeply offended by his hero's violent vigilante tactics. Spillane got it from all sides.
In addition, he wrote in an expressionistic pulp style, very vivid and even over the top, and this was a stark, even startling contrast to the understatement of Hammett and the literary tone of Chandler. To this day, it amuses me that so many critics will lavish praise on the brigade of slavish Chandler imitators, but many still refuse to recognize the distinct genius of Spillane at his best."
So which of Mickey's books would rate as Max's favourite?
"The first I read, at 13: ONE LONELY NIGHT. Mike Hammer takes on the "Commies" even as he attempts to recover from the criticism of a judge who attacked him from the bench in a manner that clearly was meant to invoke the critical attacks on Spillane."
A few years ago Max made a documentary about Mickey Spillane which I've never seen. I ask him about this?
"Mickey would never allow me to write his biography, saying he might write an autobiography himself one day. But he consented to take part in a documentary, because he understood the publicity value. I interviewed him at length, and also sat down with dozens of mystery writers at a Bouchercon to get their take -- people like the late Donald E. Westlake participated, and Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Block. London's own Maxium Jakubowski is in it. Anyway, it won quite a few awards at festivals, and has been shown at the NFT in London as part of a Spillane film retrospective mounted by my friend Adrian Wootten.
It's available in America as part of a film called SHADES OF NOIR, which gathers several short films of mine with the documentary, MIKE HAMMER'S MICKEY SPILLANE, as the centerpiece. Right now that compilation is only available as part of the boxed set ThE BLACK BOX, which gathers three other indie features I wrote and directed. Incidentally, Mickey plays an attorney in two of them, MOMMY and its sequel MOMMY'S DAY."
This interview is published in the memory of Frank Morrison Spillane 1918 - 2006
Next interview - David Cramer and Elain Ash tells us what it is they look for when selecting stories for thier Beat to a Pulp webzine.