Among the questions I’m most frequently asked by readers and reviewers is this: why do you choose crime and mystery fiction as your preferred genre?
My answer is always the same – stories need conflict, and a story with a crime inherently contains conflict. Also, a reader discovering the answers to questions – pertaining to events and/or human behavior – is a driving force in all readable fiction.
The corollary, of course, is, “But why the emphasis on sex and violence?”
That, as Mike Hammer would say, is easy – sex is life and violence is death; and those are the two big topics, aren’t they? That much is indisputable.
But the truth is no such analytical thinking drove me into mystery and crime. It was my mother’s fault.
Patricia Collins – working for the phone company while her husband Max (my father) during World War II was stationed in San Diego preparing to ship out to the Pacific – became an avid reader of the Dick Tracy comic strip. Chester Gould’s famous detective did not appear in the pages of the Des Moines Register back home. She found the strip compelling, with its wild, violent stories, its sexy soap opera elements, and grotesque villains. She loved the movies, and comics like Tracy (and Terry and the Pirates and Little Orphan Annie) were movies on the printed page.
After the war, in Muscatine, Iowa – where my father took a high school music teaching job – I was surrounded by the popular arts. My dad, a gifted musician, directed the first high school productions of Oklahoma and Carousel in the nation. My mother took me to movies every Sunday afternoon. When a community theater production (or one of my dad’s musicals) needed a hammy little kid, I was the “go to” brat. And this thing called television was happening.
My enthusiasm for comic books was a byproduct of the George Reeves-starring Superman TV show. My mom would read aloud a chapter of a book to me at bedtime. I remember her reading to me both Tarzan and the City of Gold and Tarzan and the Forbidden City (Whitman editions with Jesse Marsh art), chapter by chapter. I loved those books and she said, off-handedly, “I bet you would love Dick Tracy.”
And I did love Dick Tracy. I was buying the comic books at the inappropriate age of six and became obsessed with the shovel-jawed detective. I wanted to be a cartoonist and drew my own Tracy comics. You see, unlike other kids with similar obsessions, I didn’t want to be Dick Tracy when I grew up – I wanted to be Chester Gould.
That flourish of a signature by Tracy’s creator made Gould stand out to me. My mom sent some of my drawings to Gould and requested he send me a birthday card. Instead, on my eighth birthday, I received a drawing of Tracy from Gould with a warm inscription.
For a time I corresponded with Tracy’s papa, offering to take over the strip for him when he got tired of doing it. He said he’d keep that in mind.
Possibly Walt Disney – with whom I definitely did not correspond – played a role in all of this. Another of my other childhood enthusiasms – predating Tracy – was the Disney Peter Pan. And of course the Disneyland program appeared during my childhood, teaching all of us kids that somebody was behind these wonderful stories. Disney cheerfully seemed to take credit for the work of the countless creative folk under him, but that didn’t register on kids. But his, too, was a flourish of a signature (though he reportedly had to work to reproduce it).
What kid in his right mind would rather be Mickey Mouse than Walt Disney? And even at five I knew kids couldn’t really fly, even with a pixie-dust transfusion.
Right out of the gate, Dick Tracy – which I read in comic book form, the newspaper continuities collected and serialized - shaped my narrative instincts. In the first Tracy comic book I read (#79), the detective’s teenage son Junior falls in love with Model, the sister of a juvenile delinquent, products of an abusive home. The cliffhanger had Model getting shot and apparently killed by her brother. For a month I waited to make sure that Model was all right.
But she wasn’t.
She’d taken one of Gould’s trademark swirling bullets through the head, after all, and a graveside service confirmed just how completely, utterly dead this sweet girl was. Junior was devastated. So was I.
The next Tracy story I read, collected in a book given by a beloved aunt who knew of my new enthusiasm, detailed Tracy’s battle against the Nazi spy, the Brow. A show biz duo, the Summer Sisters – patterned on the Andrew Sisters – were tortured by the Brow with a spike machine (don’t ask) and then, when they escaped, got trapped in a submerged car. Of course, they would escape...
No. They drowned. Then, after an agonizing death, floated, lifelessly.
Yipes. But I learned right then the power of the writer – you can kill off a sympathetic character and the emotional impact of it is almost unfathomable. Yes, I knew this at eight – the hard way. By reading Dick Tracy.
Gould’s strip led me into other areas of detective fiction. Predictably, Sherlock Holmes was the next step, Tracy having been conceived as an American version of the Great Detective. But all the TV I was watching combined with Gould’s violent and sexy comic strip to nudge me toward inappropriate but wonderful material for a pre-adolescent – the original Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Saint by Leslie Charteris, and Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer. I was also listening to the radio at bedtime (now that I was too old to have my mother read stories to me) and was exposed to Dragnet.
My comic book interest led me into dangerous territory, if Dr. Frederic Wertham is to be believed. At an antiques shop (which I later wrote about in the Nolan series), I could get used comic books for a nickel and traded two for one. Here I met the benign likes of Batman and Captain Marvel, but also had my psyche twisted by EC horror comics and Mad comics (pre-magazine). This likely explains my sense of humor. That and watching Ernie Kovacs at breakfast and having to sprint to nearby Lincoln grade school because the Kovacs program bumped up against the bell.
Reading for me as a kid was always entwined with TV and movies. The first adult book I remember reading was Topper by Thorne Smith; wildly wrong material for a six- or seven- year-old. But, hey – I loved the TV show. Did you know young Stephen Sondheim wrote for it? He loves mysteries, too.
Anyway, I mention this because I was led into hardboiled mystery fiction (the term noir still just a twinkle in certain French eyes) by the craze for private eyes on “the tube” (not the underground subway in the UK). After an explosion of popularity, TV westerns were fading and two immediately popular P.I. series appeared – Peter Gunn and 77 Sunset Strip – spawning imitator upon imitator. Both Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Perry Mason were already airing and benefitted from this new enthusiasm.
Some interesting resonances need pointing out. My favorite western series was (and is) Maverick with James Garner and Jack Kelly, which often spoofed the sagebrush genre and occasionally lampooned its rivals (Gunsmoke became Gunshy). It was created and often written by mystery writer Roy Huggins, a shameless Raymond Chandler imitator. Peter Gunn was the work of Pink Panther creator Blake Edwards, who had written and directed a Mike Hammer pilot that had been initially bought but shelved when an executive didn’t want his network’s name sullied by the notorious Spillane. Gunn was a sophisticated version of Spillane’s antihero, kind of a half-way point between Hammer and James Bond.
The private eye fad brought Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe to TV. Which of course led me to the works of Hammett and Chandler. I was twelve. I loved the Mike Hammer TV show, and that its creator – Mickey Spillane – was in the title impressed me no end. But Spillane’s novels had a reputation as “dirty books,” and I would be thirteen before I pretended to be sixteen and bought One Lonely Night (out of town).
As a nerdy, bespectacled kid, I spent a lot of time at the library and used The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (big fat volumes going back decades) to track down articles and reviews pertaining to these three writers. Hammett was beloved. Chandler more so. But Spillane was despised.
Articles blamed him for the surge in juvenile delinquency. Dr. Wertham wrote scathingly about him in Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which was otherwise about the comic books I loved. Spillane became a gag line in movies and on TV as an exemplar of bad taste literature.
And of course I loved him.
All through my childhood, obsessed as I was with comic books, I had wanted to be a cartoonist. I was a good little artist. I would write and draw my own comics – usually Dick Tracy or Zorro – and distribute them to my classmates (one stapled copy, passed around). In the seventh grade I did a weekly Mad imitation called Psycho Ward that I shared with my fellow students. I was going to be a cartoonist when I grew up. Everybody knew it, especially me.
But my Spillane enthusiasm – and all of those private eye (and crime) TV shows – caused the writing to come to the fore. I’d always scripted my own comics, but now the drawing fell away – and I had no idea that Spillane had been a comic book writer or that Mike Hammer had begun as a failed comic book project called Mike Danger.
I wrote my own short stories (still drawing covers) and by the ninth grade was writing and submitting novels, unsuccessfully of course. My version of Mike Hammer was “Matt Savage.” These I passed around to friends and on a few instances read the stories to the class, thanks to an English teacher named Ernest Beatty (who had a son named Terry).
Digging deeper into why I wrote (and write) the kind of material that would get me criticized by teachers, my parents and (even now) reviewers, I would point out that I was a small kid, a bookworm with glasses, and was frequently bullied. I sprouted in the eighth grade and the bullying ended; but it took half a dozen fist fights to stop it, even when I was no longer a shrimp.
So the revenge aspect of Mike Hammer, which separates him from cool Sam Spade and poetic Phillip Marlowe, had a great deal to do with why Spillane resonated so deeply.
Also, people picked on him. Unfairly.
And I’d been there.
NEXT: PART TWO: NOLAN