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Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

Mickey Spillane’s Work Keeps Coming, 12 Years After His Death

Mystery writer Mickey Spillane died in 2006, but thanks to a fan and fellow novelist who is editing and completing his unfinished works, his estate continues to release new books under his name.


Thomas Vinciguerra


Mickey Spillane portrayed his own creation, Mike Hammer, in the 1963 movie ‘The Girl Hunters.’ Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mickey Spillane was never adored by critics. He famously said that his own father called his work “crud.” For the mystery novelist, none of it mattered.

“I don’t have fans,” he said in a 1981 People magazine interview. “I have customers. I’m a writer. I give ’em what they wanna read.”

He died in 2006 at 88, but his work hasn’t stopped. In the past 12 years, his estate has released nearly 20 of his unpublished and previously uncompleted novels and short stories, some as graphic novels and audio plays, many of them featuring the hard-boiled private eye he created, Mike Hammer.

‘Killing Town’ is set for release in April.

“Killing Town,” begun in 1946 and hailed as Spillane’s first but previously unpublished novel, is due out in April. “The Last Stand,” believed to be his final completed work, is expected next month along with another unpublished work, “A Bullet for Satisfaction,” around his 100th birthday on March 9.

This afterlife is due largely to a longtime fan and fellow novelist, Max Allan Collins. Named a 2017 Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, Mr. Collins as a teenager pelted his favorite author with admiring (and unanswered) letters.

In 1973, when Mr. Collins published his first book, “Bait Money,” Spillane finally responded by welcoming him to the ranks of the pros. They met in person in 1981, at a mystery writers’ convention.

“We were very different,” said Mr. Collins, 69, from his home in Muscatine, Iowa. “I’m a Democrat. He was to the right of Attila the Hun.”

A friendship nonetheless ensued, and Spillane designated Mr. Collins as his literary executor.

Max Allan Collins, actress Majel Barrett-Roddenberry and Mickey Spillane in 1995. Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty Images

“Give everything to Max,” he told his wife, Jane, Mr. Collins recalled. “He’ll know what to do.”

Ever since Spillane’s death, Mr. Collins has been sorting, assessing, editing and often completing the thousands of pages that Spillane kept in plastic storage tubs at his house in Murrells Inlet, S.C.

“I’ve been doing this since 2006, and I still have a full file drawer of material,” Mr. Collins said. “He called me his wastebasket.”

Spillane’s posthumous sales can only be estimated because of the variety of formats in which they are available in the U.S. and overseas, said Katharine Carroll, U.S. publicity director for Titan Books and Hard Case Crime, the publishers of “Killing Town,” The Last Stand” and “Bullet for Satisfaction.” “I would conservatively guess the numbers sold are clearly at least in the hundreds of thousands,” she said.

‘The Last Stand,’ believed to be Spillane’s final completed work, arrives in March.

“Every generation rediscovers Mickey,” said Jim Traylor, Mr. Collins’ collaborator on two book-length studies of Spillane and a biography that is in the works. “In the early 2000s I gave my daughter a copy of ‘I, the Jury’ and she disappeared to the beach until she finished. And she’s not a great reader.”

Spillane’s enduring popularity is largely a matter of simplicity, Mr. Traylor said. “It’s not very highbrow, but it’s very real. It’s very Old Testament. It’s eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”

Ms. Carroll declined to say how much the publishers were paying the estate for the titles. Ms. Spillane also declined to discuss what her late husband’s work was bringing in.

“He would have a fit about that,” she said. “There are years I’ve made an awful lot of money and other years where I haven’t.”

Working from notes, memos and scraps, Mr. Collins attempts to emulate his idol’s voice in bringing his plots to fruition. “I don’t write like Mickey,” he said, “but there are things I learned from reading him at 13 years old.”

Part of the challenge is emulating Spillane’s evolution as a writer. Initially, Mr. Collins said, Spillane was “completely out of control” in his depictions of sex and violence. In “The Big Kill” (1951), he wrote, “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.”

In the early 1950s, Spillane became a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t publish any books for 10 years. When he returned to work, his prose was unchanged. “I could bury the ax in his belly,” he wrote in “The Girl Hunters” (1962). “That would be fun, all right. Stick it right in the middle of his skull and it would look a lot better.”

Eventually, said Mr. Collins, Spillane made the leap from “brilliant primitive” to “polished professional” and ratcheted down the rhetoric.

“On more than one occasion, I’ve looked at these manuscripts and I can see that at page 100 he stops after a sex scene. I can see him saying to himself, ‘I better not do this.’ And I say, ‘Where is Mickey’s head at right now?’ I have to look at these manuscripts like an archaeologist. I try my best to date when he wrote a particular fragment,” Mr. Collins said.

Ms. Spillane, who still lives in the Murrells Inlet house she shared with her husband, recalled that he would leap out of bed in the middle of the night to scrawl ideas on Post-it Notes.

“He always told me he was going to live forever,” she said. “And now I know what he meant.”