Shame on me, but I screwed up my post scheduling, so this was meant to appear on Saturday.
A belated birthday acknowledgment to Frank Morrison Spillane, better known as Mickey Spillane, born 101 years ago on March 9th, who sadly left us in 2006. Loved by readers, resented by writers (to this day), reviled by critics, spoofed by himself and many others, the man was actually an instrumental part of building the postwar paperback marketplace. I’ll argue that he played a part in revitalizing — maybe even redefining — the hard-boiled private eye novel for the second half of the twentieth century, and along the way, sold a mere 225 million books.
Crime Reads editor Molly Odintz has a very interesting piece at Crimereads.com, “The Ten Best And Pulpiest Mickey Spillane Covers” – do log on and check it out. The covers shown here aren’t the ones Odintz presents, and some might say her choices aren’t anywhere near as pulpy, weird or downright pervy as some Spillane covers can be. Molly Odintz acknowledges that while commercial success should never be a measure of literary merit, Spillane’s recent centennial and various authors (Max Allan Collins key among them) arguing for a reassessment of the writer’s importance begs for publishers to reissue his work, but in different cover art, “…so that folks like me will actually want to read him in public. Can you imagine bringing one of these on the subway?” But she continues, and this is crucial to understanding Spillane and his work: “But Mickey Spillane didn’t care about what people thought of his cover designs, or the literary merit of his books, and paid no attention to any censorial judgments whatsoever, so perhaps the best way to celebrate the iconic writer’s birthday would indeed be to bring one of these on the subway – and not care what anyone thinks”.
Odintz showcases ten Spillane covers she considers particularly weird, pulpy or tawdry. Anyone familiar with postwar pulp magazine and paperback cover art may consider them surprisingly tame. I’ll concede, Spillane’s One Lonely Night was almost always packaged with particularly disturbing cover art of a bound and partially stripped woman. The 1960’s – 70’s era Spillane reissues followed that period’s trend towards photo cover art, and typically employed provocatively posed near-nude women with no relation to the title, story or…well, anything at all, simply beckoning to the reader with ‘come-hither’ expressions. Some European editions of Spillane novels went way beyond anything that would be allowed in the U.S. market. And the fact is, many 1950’s era mystery/crime fiction paperbacks (and certainly the remaining pulps from the same era) can completely out-weird, out-sex, out-perv most any Mickey Spillane cover art, with one after another depicting menacing thugs and lover-boy private eyes threatening or otherwise taking advantage of a gallery of women-as-victims and women-as-eye-candy, invariably undressed or undressing in fetishistic detail, restrained, terrified…or often as not…dead.
Do we blame the writers? The publishers, their art directors, the illustrators? Do we blame the culture of the time? Do we blame anyone at all, or do we just recognize that they’re artifacts from another era? Don’t ask me…I’ll have to leave vexing questions like that to smarter folks than I. But I won’t apologize for appreciating Mickey Spillane. I have all of the Mickey Spillane novels, with doubles and triples of a few from different eras, along with the unfinished works completed by Max Allan Collins, some few books about Spillane, the complete Mike Hammer comic strip book and sundry other Spillane items. Call me a fan.
While I don’t ride the subway, I fully understand what Molly Odintz is saying, and there are more than a few (maybe most) of my Spillane books that I’m not too eager to whip out in the coffee shop, just so I can watch fellow patrons ease their chairs away from me. But the same goes for other vintage paperbacks I have, and quite a few contemporary books, now that I think of it.
Cheap used bookstore copies of the first few Mike Hammer novels were actually what lured me into the mystery/crime fiction genre in the first place, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. Spillane’s no-nonsense prose and plot-first writing style guides me in my own humble writing attempts, particularly whenever I get ‘writerly’. I don’t know if, like Molly Odintz, I’d like to see Mickey Spillane’s body of work reissued in ‘tamer’ packaging, or just as she speculates, if the hard-boiled crime fiction master’s work indeed should be reissued, but in cover art that celebrates all the violent, sexy, tawdry, pulpy storytelling each book contained.