Saturday, March 26, 2016

Mystery History - Sterling Hayden

It's the birthday of Sterling Hayden, born March 26, 1916 in Montclair, New Jersey. He gained his fame as an actor in westerns and dark film noir roles. But he also wrote a novel with a nautical theme that reflected his love of the sea. He once said he acted just to pay the bills so he could sail. Yet he appeared in some of the greatest heist movies of the 20th century. His own larger than life adventures would have made a first rate adventure film.

Sailing was his first love. He dropped out of school to sign aboard a ship as a teen. By the time he was 22 years old he had sailed around the world several times and served as captain on a trip to Tahiti.

His good looks and 6' 5'' frame helped him get a contract with Paramount Pictures. He appeared in a couple of pictures, but when World War II broke out, he joined the Marines. His knowledge of sailing made him invaluable to the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), which used him to run arms to Yugoslavian partisans fighting the Nazis. As an undercover agent, he set up rescue teams for allied pilots in enemy territory, actions that would have earned him a German firing squad had he been caught. Instead he earned several commendations, including the Silver Star.

After the war he returned to Hollywood and made some of the most memorable films of the postwar era, including The Killing, Crime of Passion, The Asphalt Jungle, and Dr. Strangelove. But he always returned to the sea.

He published two books, an autobiography (Wanderer) and a novel (Voyage). Both were well received by critics and the public. One man, Jim Beaver, even credited Hayden's autobiography with changing his life as a writer and actor. And that's something to write about.

"I've always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can't afford it." What these men can't afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of 'security.' And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine - and before we know it our lives are gone."

- Sterling Hayden

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Writers Born Today - Mickey Spillane

It's the birthday of Frank Morrison Spillane, born March 9, 1918 in Brooklyn. His father, an Irish bartender, gave him the nickname "Mickey". He developed a knack for story helped him avoid beatings by older kids in his tough neighborhood. By the end of high school, he had sold his first story to a pulp magazine. After some college he got a job writing comics. World War II interrupted his literary pursuits and with scant success in the comic trade, Spillane turned to writing novels using Mike Danger, a P.I. hero he created for the comics. He renamed the character Mike Hammer, and churned out the first novel with this hero in just three weeks. The publisher, E.P. Dutton, didn't think much of the writing, but bought it anyway, in part as a favor to Spillane's agent. It would change the publishing industry.

I, The Jury sold a respectable 10,000 copies in hardcover, but when released in paperback, sales exploded, literally. Over a million copies were sold, and Spillane churned out half a dozen more novels in the next few years featuring his hard hitting and often brutal hero. Spillane's timing was perfect. Paperbacks were cheap and fed the public's postwar demand for action and adventure filled stories.

Literary gems they were not. A new Mike Hammer novel brought enormous sales, but also scathing reviews from book critics. Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of I, The Jury ,"so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school."  The Saturday Review of Literature was more succinct. "Lurid action, lurid characters, lurid writing, lurid plot, lurid finish. Verdict: Lurid"

But Spillane didn't let the bad reviews bother him. "I don't give a hoot about readin' reviews. What I want to read is the royalty checks," he said. And the checks poured in, not just from print, but from television, radio and movie rights. One of the most successful screen adaptations was the movie Kiss Me Deadly, which starred Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer. In real life, Spillane bore little resemblance to his hard as nails hero. He was a Jehovah's witness, and neither drank nor smoked.

Spillane created other protaganists, including spies Tiger Mann and Mako Hooker. He even wrote a few children's books and won a Junior Literary Guild award for one of them, The Day The Sea Rolled Back.

By the time he returned to writing Mike Hammer novels in the 60s, his literary reputation was improving. In 1995, the Mystery Writers of America gave him the Grand Master, the highest award in the mystery field in recognition of his lifetime achievements as a writer.

To date, his novels have sold over 200 million copies.

"Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar."

                                                                                 - Mickey Spillane