- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2001

MURRELLS INLET, S.C. — The end of the road can be a pretty place, at least in this coastal town. Just turn off the main highway, drive past the trailer homes and cottages, brace yourself for some dirt and gravel and pull up a mile from the Atlantic Ocean.

There you will find a fine-looking white house with a wraparound porch, set on an acre efficiently watered by a sprinkler system. It´s a big house, so big that the owner, a wealthy man with a mind for the bottom line, has lost count of how many rooms he has.

"Is it 12? No, I think it´s 14," Mickey Spillane says.

Author of the multimillion-selling Mike Hammer crime novels, the 83-year-old Mr. Spillane has lived in Murrell´s Inlet for 50 years, having moved there not long after he spotted the then-isolated beach community while flying down to Florida.

When he first moved here, Mr. Spillane needed the privacy. He was one of the world´s most famous and most successful writers, and Hammer was a brand name in the publishing business. His terse, big-city style became so distinctive that it was parodied in the Fred Astaire musical "The Band Wagon."

An odd thing happened to Mr. Spillane over the past decade, however. The writer critics he once wished would go away essentially did just that. Many of his novels, including such blockbusters as "Kiss Me Deadly" and "I, the Jury," went out of print or became hard to find.

"I´m smart enough to know when you go to the top, you´re going to come down," Mr. Spillane says. "The kind of stuff I wrote originally has now gone out of style. It´s a heavier type of writing."

"I don´t get anyone asking about him," says Don Cannon, owner of Cannon Epicurean Books, a mystery shop in North Hollywood, Calif. "He was a trendsetter, a real Cold War writer, but times have changed."

Spend time around Mr. Spillane, however, and you´ll realize that he is not forgotten, at home or beyond. A post-office clerk, a cashier at the convenience store, his next door neighbor — all know him and his white pickup truck. Eating lunch at a nearby fish place, Mr. Spillane gets the celebrity treatment. Two women — one young, one old — take his picture. A college student asks for his autograph.

Mr. Spillane also gets mail; fans send books for him to sign. On a recent morning, he shipped off a package to North Carolina and picked up one from Louisiana.

Mr. Spillane blames his publisher, the New American Library, for missing out. He´s convinced that the company cares more about young writers and doesn´t realize what he has accomplished.

"It´s not like the old days, when they appreciated books and readers," he says. "It was a good, tight organization. Now … it´s, 'Oh, we got to get new stuff.´

"I´ve got 200 million [books] in sales," he notes. "You´d think this would amount to something."

"We do pay a lot of attention, but he doesn´t perceive that," responds Carolyn Nichols, vice president and executive director at the New American Library. "He´s much loved by everybody here. He gets calls from us and has a publicist of his own and so forth."

The New American Library, an imprint of Penguin Putnam, means to prove that it cares. Mr. Spillane´s first three Hammer novels have just been reissued in a single volume. The next three Hammer books are scheduled to be reissued in the fall.

"He´s a classic, and I was surprised when we discovered his work was out of print," Miss Nichols says.

While Mr. Spillane´s novels once were instant best sellers, his publisher now will take a cautious approach. The first printing of his reissued work will be "modest," fewer than 100,000 copies.

"We live in a world of political correctness, and Mickey´s anything but politically correct," Miss Nichols says.

Blacks, gays, women — Mr. Spillane has stereotyped them all. No one writes like him anymore, and few try. Mr. Spillane is a rare conservative in the book world, with communists used as villains in his work and liberals taking some hits as well.

Viewed by some as a precursor to Clint Eastwood´s Dirty Harry, Mr. Spillane´s Hammer is a loner contemptuous of the "tedious process" of the jury system, choosing instead to enforce the law on his own murderous terms.

"Mike Hammer is the great Cold War vigilante figure," says Ann Douglas, a professor of American studies at Columbia University who specializes in the Cold War.

"How can you have 'Death Wish´ without Mickey Spillane? Or Dirty Harry? Or Rambo? The thinking behind the Cold War was that the United States has got to have enemies. And that´s exactly how Mickey Spillane´s books work."

Mr. Spillane was long associated with his hard-living character, an image sealed by his manly Miller beer ads in the 1970s and ´80s. The author, however, says he never was much of a drinker and was careful about women — he states with pride that he had a date with Hedy Lamarr and nothing happened.

The guy who brought "broads" and blood to the reading masses is actually a Jehovah´s Witness, member of a fundamentalist sect that preaches the imminent end of the world.

"There´s nothing phony about them. Everything they say is true," says Mr. Spillane, a one-time "nominal" Protestant converted years ago by a Jehovah´s Witness who knocked on his door.

Mr. Spillane may give his publisher the business, but he´s easygoing for this recent interview, a sweetheart. He doesn´t worry about being old because he isn´t "old yet." He has his health, his third wife, six cats and a house big enough to hold all of them. He doesn´t like what has happened to Murrell´s Inlet, now a popular golf resort outside of Myrtle Beach, but he doesn´t appear eager to leave.

Built like an old prizefighter, Mr. Spillane stands a stocky, 5 feet, 8 inches. His hair, still partly gray, is cut close. He walks at a calm pace and talks the same way, in a warm, "Whatayya gonna do?" kind of manner, in an accent about as Southern as the New Jersey Turnpike.

Mr. Spillane was born Frank Morrison Spillane on March 9, 1918, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., and attended Fort Hayes State College in Kansas, where he was a standout swimmer, before he began his career writing for magazines.

He always had 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.

Danger never saw print. World War II broke out, and Mr. Spillane enlisted. When he came home, he needed money to buy some land and thought novels would be the best way to go. Within three weeks, he had completed "I, the Jury" and sent it to Dutton, now a division of Penguin Putnam. The editors there doubted the writing, but not the market for it; a literary franchise began.

Mr. Spillane´s most recent Hammer novel, "Black Alley," came out in 1996. The old detective has slowed down a bit, just like his creator. He´s roughly Mr. Spillane´s age, although still a goner for the ever-luscious Velda, no youngster herself.

Mr. Spillane remains active, too. He writes all the time, believing a market remains for him. He´s working on a new Hammer novel (his last, he swears) and has finished a couple of other books, adventure stories.

"I´ve got a guy from another publisher coming down to see me," he says. "He wanted to know if I had written anything lately. I told him, 'I got the books. You got money?´"

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