Spillane, War of the Worlds & More

November 5th, 2013 by Max Allan Collins

Before I share some news and links with you, I want to congratulate longtime M.A.C. fan Brad Schwartz, a recent college grad who has begun what I know will be an impressive career with a writing credit on the recent American Experience WAR OF THE WORLDS episode. This aired on various days and at various times on PBS stations, during Halloween week, and may be running again this month – check your local listings. It’s a terrific show, drawing on Brad’s research into the many letters sent by and to Orson Welles, surrounding the famous radio panic. When the DVD and Blu-ray come out, an interview with Brad will be featured.

Brad, George Hagenauer and I are in the early stages of what we hope will be a definitive work on the life of Eliot Ness. With two researchers like that, all I have to do is lean back and figure out where to put the commas.

For those of you in the eastern Iowa area, I will be signing ASK NOT at Mystery Cat Books in Cedar Rapids (112 32nd Street Drive) this Wednesday (November 6). It’s a rare joint appearance with my pal Ed Gorman – Ed rarely does signings, so even some out-of-staters may wish to drive to this very cool bookstore. Starts at 7 p.m. There’s a good chance Barb Collins and Matt Clemens will be on hand, as well.

In Mickey Spillane news, I am negotiating with Kensington (home of the ANTIQUES series) to develop a trio of novels from an unproduced western screenplay that Mickey wrote for John Wayne. The screenplay was called THE SAGA OF CALLI YORK, but that has been tweaked into THE LEGEND OF CALEB YORK, which will be the series name. There’s a possibility it may go beyond three books. More as I know more, but you have to admit it’s exciting – a western by Mickey Spillane written for the Duke!

Perhaps the most disappointing Spillane project has been the book that Jim Traylor and I did for McFarland, MICKEY SPILLANE ON SCREEN. The book has generated scant sales, no award nominations, and a handful of reviews, although Jim and I are very proud of our work on it. It’s a beautiful book with great pictures, packed with Spillane lore, but its high price ($45 for a trade paperback) has discouraged readers.

So Jim and I were thrilled – since the book was published over a year ago – to see a rave review appear in CLASSIC IMAGES, the terrific vintage film publication. Though you can buy CLASSIC IMAGES at newsstands and bookstores worldwide, it is produced in Muscatine, Iowa, by editor Bob King, who is a friend. I was disappointed that for many, many months the publication seemed to ignore the Spillane film book. Just recently, Bob confided in me that he was worried his notoriously tough reviewer might give us a pan. His worries were misplaced, as were mine.

Normally I would just provide a link, but this great review is not available on line. With editor Bob King’s permission, here it is:

Book Points by Laura Wagner

(Originally published in the November, 2013 issue of Classic Images, www.classicimages.com)

Crime writer Mickey Spillane (1918-2006), best known for creating the popular detective Mike Hammer, has always been one of my favorite writers. He began writing professionally for comic books in the 1940s. In need of extra cash after the war, Spillane wrote his first novel, I, The Jury, in nineteen days in 1947. The book, which was a huge success, introduced the character of Mike Hammer.

I, The Jury was also the first movie adapted from a Spillane novel. The 1953 film starred Biff Elliot as the hard-boiled detective. Elliott, however, was no match for Ralph Meeker’s portrayal of Hammer in the classic Kiss Me, Deadly (1955). Other actors who played Mike Hammer include Robert Bray (My Gun Is Quick), Kevin Dobson (Margin For Murder), and Armand Assante (1982’s I, The Jury). Darren McGavin was the first actor to play Hammer on TV, in the 1950s. In recent years, Stacy Keach has become most identified in the role due to a series of television movies and the TV series The New Mike Hammer.

According to The Washington Times, Mickey Spillane “was a quintessential Cold War writer, an unconditional believer in good and evil and a rare political conservative in the book world. Communists were villains in his work and liberals took some hits as well. In a manner similar to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Hammer was a cynical loner contemptuous of the ‘tedious process’ of trials, choosing instead to enforce the law on his own terms.” (Hammer says in One Lonely Night, “I lived only to kill the scum and the lice that wanted to kill themselves. I lived to kill so that others could live. I lived to kill because my soul was a hardened thing that reveled in the thought of taking the blood of the bastards who made murder their business.”)

Spillane was a celebrity in his own right, often appearing on television as himself. As an actor, he appeared in Ring Of Fear (1954), which was co-produced by John Wayne; Spillane also co-wrote the film without credit. Save for the dreary Clyde Beatty circus footage, Ring Of Fear was a pretty good murder-mystery, boasting an excellent performance from Sean McClory as a silky-smooth psychotic and a fascinating Spillane as himself, a writer-detective investigating freak accidents at the circus. He would play his creation, Mike Hammer, in The Girl Hunters (1963), which was filmed in England. Spillane also appeared in Miller Lite beer commercials in the 1970s and ‘80s.

As a writer Spillane was often criticized for his heated prose, his “artless plots, his reliance on unlikely coincidence and a simplistic understanding of the law” (New York Times), while others had difficulty with the extreme violence and sexual content. Even Ogden Nash got into the act when he wrote, “The Marquis de Sade/Wasn’t always mad/What addled his brain/Was Mickey Spillane.” Spillane, himself, called his own writing “the chewing gum of American literature.” He dismissed his critics, remarking, “I’m not writing for the critics. I’m writing for the public.” He described himself as a “money writer,” in that “I write when I need money. I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends.” And there was no denying that he was a very popular, influential, and hard-hitting writer.

Spillane died at the age of 88. After his death, his friend and literary executor Max Allan Collins edited and completed several of Spillane’s unpublished typescripts.

“I snapped the side of the rod across his jaw and laid the flesh open to the bone,” Spillane wrote in The Big Kill. “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.” How can you not love that? Whew.

The aforementioned Max Allan Collins and James L. Traylor have written a terrific new book called Mickey Spillane on Screen: A Complete Study of the Television and Film Adaptations (McFarland softcover, $45). We get chapters on:

Spillane At The Movies: I, the Jury (1953), The Long Wait (1954), Ring of Fear (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), My Gun Is Quick (1957), The Girl Hunters (1963), The Delta Factor (1970), I, the Jury (1982).

Spillane On TV: Mike Hammer TV Pilot (1954), Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958-59), Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in Margin for Murder (1981), Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer: Murder Me, Murder You (1983), Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer: More Than Murder (1984), Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1984-85) CBS-TV, Return of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1986), The New Mike Hammer (1986-87) CBS-TV, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer: Murder Takes All (1989), Come Die with Me: A Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer Mystery (1994), Tomorrow I Die (Fallen Angels, 1995), Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Private Eye (1997-98).

Appendices: A. The Hammer (Film) Code, B. The Girl Hunt Ballet (The Band Wagon, 1953), C. Who’s Who of Spillane on Film, D. Stars of the Hammer Film Universe, E. Mickey Spillane in His Own Words.

Each movie gets a thorough analysis, a detailed plot summary (with pertinent dialogue and comments), historical background, trivia, and the authors’ opinion of how Spillane’s works are adapted, how the characters are handled, opinions on performances, etc. The commentary is fair and balanced, and in a few instances very funny. I was especially tickled by the chapter on Come Die with Me, a simply dreadful sounding “updating” of Mike Hammer starring Rob Estes and Pamela Anderson. The plot recapping is simply mind-boggling, just amazing sounding, and the author’s insertion of humor is welcome. This was a pilot made with absolutely no understanding of the Hammer character, especially when they had the tough private eye get on a skateboard. I laughed out loud when they wrote, “It has come to this: Mike Hammer on a skateboard.” The whole thing is just so surreal.

It has been acknowledged that the quintessential Mike Hammer has always been Ralph Meeker in the classic Kiss Me Deadly—and rightly so. But, the authors make strong cases for Biff Elliot, Armand Assante, and, of course, Spillane himself as portrayers of Mike Hammer.

I have a personal liking for the 1953 version of I, The Jury, a brutal, very underappreciated film noir. I always thought poor Biff Eliot has been given raw deal, by fans and critics alike. He’s been knocked for his short stature, for his suits with padded shoulders, and for his overall look and speaking voice, but I enjoyed his performance very much. Biff was hot-tempered, quick with his fists, and had an edge to him, which I thought perfect for the role—critics, be damned. I’m glad that Collins and Traylor feel as strongly as I do that Biff should be better remembered. The movie is not shown often, but it’s worth seeing. Another reassessment comes for the ’80s’ I, the Jury with Armand Assante. The authors make it sound like a must-see, and I must confess that before this I hadn’t wanted to see this, but I do now. I judged before seeing this, something you should never do with movies. Assante seems an odd choice for Hammer, but if the authors say he does a good job, then he should be given a chance. This is another film not in circulation.

The separate Mike Hammer television series starring Darren McGavin and Stacy Keach have neatly organized chapters. It isn’t feasible to talk about every episode, naturally, but by concentrating on select episodes and summing up others, and discussing recurring themes, etc., they give us an excellent flavor of the series’ runs. This is harder than it looks, but the authors make it seem effortless. Good writing, all around. Complete episode guides are included.

Their very persuasive write-ups pinpoint all of the films’ strengths and weaknesses with good analyses and some clever wording. I was very glad, since we are talking about some film noirs within, that the authors did not resort to phony “noir writing.” You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all read books about noirs where the authors think they have to write “tough,” in the so-called style of noir. It only comes across as irritating. Thankfully, that is missing here, and we instead get good, solid writing.

You love Spillane? This is the book to get. A better discussion of the films adapted from his work you will not find. Nor are there authors more knowledgeable than Collins and Traylor. Plus, there’s an interesting Q&A with Spillane conducted by co-author Collins at the book’s conclusion.

Photos are terrific, with some behind-the-scenes shots that were new to me.

* * *

Reviewer J. Kingston Pierce gives ASK NOT star treatment in this article about JFK-related fiction.

Here’s a rave review of ASK NOT from Bookreporter.

Randy Johnson at Not the Baseball Pitcher serves up this great ASK NOT review.

And the Historical Novel Society provides this short but sweet ASK NOT critique.

EARLY CRIMES has pleasantly surprised me by generating some really great reviews for a book that could easily have been dismissed as self-indulgence on my part. Check out this remarkable Bookgasm write-up.

And Ron Fortier, always a first-rate writer and reviewer, also has good things to say about EARLY CRIMES. Like a lot of people (I’m relieved to say), he’s really digging the early ‘70s, previously unpublished novel SHOOT THE MOON included in the collection.

Speaking of WAR OF THE WORLDS, my novel gets a nice mention in this article.

And TARGET LANCER, out in mass market paperback, continues to generate some new reviews, like this one.

I am among celebrated company in this article about “famous writers” who are also ghostwriters. The subject is Spillane, but the one book I could really be considered a “ghostwriter” on isn’t mentioned. And I won’t mention it, either….

Finally, here’s a write-up on the multiple-author novel INHERIT THE DEAD. I wrote a chapter for it (collaborating with Matt Clemens), but I haven’t mentioned it here, because (a) I haven’t read the book yet, and (b) they spell my middle name wrong on the back cover. But you can read about it here.


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8 Responses to “Spillane, War of the Worlds & More”

  1. Paul.Griffith says:

    “I won’t mention it, either…” Black Alley? One of my favorite’s, love the opening and theme. Dead Street was extremely well written as well.

  2. I had nothing to do with the writing of BLACK ALLEY, although I was honored to have it dedicated to me. A lot of people in recent years have theorized that I was involved in that novel and THE KILLING MAN, too, presumably because Mickey hadn’t published a Hammer in a while. But I never ghosted anything for Mickey. We did collaborate on projects, of course.

    The only instances during Mickey’s lifetime where I was involved in the writing of stories he bylined were the Mike Danger short story, “Grave Matter,” which eventually became a Mike Hammer story (co-bylined), and I turned his vintage radio script for “The Night I Died” into a story, which was strictly carpentry. On DEAD STREET, Mickey’s manuscript was nearly finished. I did some editing and tweaking and wrote the final three chapters. This, of course, was after his death.

    Rumors that certain of Mickey’s novels were occasionally ghosted have surfaced over the years, but there appears to be no validity to that. Stephen Marlowe was said (by the jealous Michael Avallone, principally) to have written THE BODY LOVERS, but I spoke to Marlowe, who denied that in no uncertain terms. Having spent lots of time with BODY LOVERS, I can say with certainty that Mickey’s fingerprints are all over it.

    The only other instance of ghost-writing in Spillane’s case was one done by Howard Browne –“The Veiled Woman.” Browne was editing Fantastic, where the story had been announced with much ballyhoo…then Mickey missed the deadline. Browne wrote the story as a Spillane pastiche essentially over night, to get it to the printer. Mickey was furious, but understood he had put Browne in an untenable position, and decided not to sue. I got this from both Browne and Mickey.

  3. Paul.Griffith says:

    I love to hear you expound on writing and books in general! Yeah, read that about “The Veiled Woman” or heard it in an interview. ONE LONELY KNIGHT perhaps? Anyway, since you mentioned THE KILLING MAN, there is part of chapter 9 where Hammer visits General Rudy Skubal an old friend from the Army days in WWII and now ex-CIA. Somehow it didn’t fit the Hammer mold and I always felt it may have been redacted from another novel, (Tiger Mann?). It is certainly Spillane, but seemed more like filler that just didn’t blend with the action of the novel. Perhaps you have an insight into this also.

    On another note, I had never heard of Mac Wallace until ASK NOT and was blown away by the research and facts uncovered in this great book! I am anxious to see how the conspiracy ties in with Bobby’s death as well.

  4. Gerard Saylor says:

    The subject is Spillane, but the one book I could really be considered a “ghostwriter” on isn’t mentioned. And I won’t mention it, either….

    There seems to be plenty of writers who could tell interesting stories, but the contracts do not allow it. The former British SAS soldier Andy McNab did a series of shoot-em-up spy thrillers and I enjoyed all of them. I wish I knew who ghosted the last one, set in France, because that novel was a really fun read.

  5. Frank says:

    I just finished ASK NOT and thought it was your best Heller yet. Just an excellent book. I believe the ghostwritten book you are referring to is PROTECT AND DEFEND ” by ” Jack Valenti. You are listed as providing ” editing judgments and assistance ” but I am guessing you wrote the whole thing. Especially since it is listed on this website as one of your books.

  6. mike doran says:

    With regard to “The Book That Must Not Be Named” …
    I daresay that most of us who are at all familar with the nooks and crannies of this blog know what TNTMNBN is, since it’s referenced in the Book section.
    As it happens, I tracked down a copy of it online, and I noted your name in the acknowledgements – misspelled.

    The whole ghostwriting business sounds like a possible future (past?) case for Jack and Maggie Starr

    I noticed that you didn’t mention your scheduled appearance this Sunday at Centuries & Sleuths.
    Is that still on (I hope I hope I hope)?
    I sneaked into the office to to read this (I had the week off), so I guess I’ll find out for sure on Sunday afternoon.
    See you then … maybe.

  7. Tim Field says:

    Great news about the Eliot Ness biography – I know these things take time, but it will be worth the wait. Last night I attended the opening of the travelling exhibit American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition at the Minnesota History Center. One particular artifact captured my attention: Eliot Ness’ signed oath of office as a treasury agent from 1928. If you’re in the Twin Cities area, MAC, before mid-March, it’s an exhibit worth seeing.

  8. I can say this about the Valenti book — he wrote a complete manuscript. The story is very much his. I cannot detail my exact involvement, but rumors that I wrote this book alone are unfounded.