For me, this is where it all started.
This book, more than anything else, is what set me firmly on the path to not only one day becoming a writer myself but also falling in love with the hardboiled framework within which I would do my writing.
Oh, I had “tinkered” with thoughts of writing and storytelling all through grade school—initially blocking out pages of paper, comic book-style, and filling the blocks with drawings and conversation balloons to tell a story; until eventually deciding I was more interested in (and better at) the writing than the drawing. And as far back as I can remember I was an avid reader—comic books, youth adventures and mysteries, young adult, Whitman editions of classics and TV show tie-ins, etc.
Then along came Spillane.
I bought my copy of THE GIRL HUNTERS off the spinner rack of a drug store in Antioch, Illinois. I recognized the names of Spillane and Hammer because of the old Darren McGavin TV series. I remembered liking that show when it was on, but I was soon to find out it did little to prepare me for the real thing. “The first Mike Hammer in 10 years!” read the back cover blurb of the book; and then, “Only Mickey Spillane can write them as rough, raw, and violent!” I couldn't plunk down my 50 cents down fast enough, and it was possibly the best investment I ever made.
In fairness, I should mention that, in this same time period, Ace paperbacks had begun re-releasing the Tarzan novels (and other works by Edgar Rice Burroughs) with those wonderful Frank Frazetta covers. These, too, factored strongly into inspiring the writer in me. The thrill and enjoyment I got from reading these works by Spillane and Burroughs (and other writers they subsequently led me to) was something I not only wanted more of but it became a goal to one day produce work of my own that would hopefully provide that same kind of enjoyment for others. And if you're thinking what a strange combination Spillane and Burroughs make, well, I can't help it—that's the way it was.
Spillane ultimately won out as far as the direction my own writing would take (though there's still a part of me that hankers to one day do something in the fantasy/high adventure mold). I think this was largely due to my blue collar background and a peripheral family influence. My folks were pretty basic, hard working, middle class types (as I consider myself, and proudly so) who didn't exactly dis-courage my writing aspirations, but neither were they enthused about it as I grew toward manhood. Telling them I was going to be writing detective mysteries or maybe Westerns was one thing; had it been forgotten realms and tales of derring do, hard to tell what their reaction might have been.
Getting back to THE GIRL HUNTERS. This remains my favorite Spillane book (though I tend often to think of it in conjunction with THE SNAKE, which makes a very powerful second act if for no other reason than the terrific ending). When it comes to a series of books or movies, it is sometimes hard, for me anyway, to make a distinction between favorite and best. No less a Spillane expert (not to mention colleague and collaborator in continuing the Hammer series) than Max Allan Collins considers the seven earlier Hammer books to be Spillane/Hammer at their best. Me, I consider three of the titles that came after Mickey's ten-year hiatus – from1952 to 1962 – to be his best. THE GIRL HUNTERS, THE SNAKE, and THE BODY LOVERS. But, like I said, that's where I came in and where I was first bowled over by the world of Hammer and his creator. My favorites? For sure. The best? Each can judge for him- or herself.
The premise for THE GIRL HUNTERS recognizes Hammer's absence from the scene. In this case, it's only for seven years. Velda, Hammer's beautiful and beloved secretary/partner has been missing for all that time. He sent her out on a case by herself, to guard some jewels being worn by a high society dame at a large function. Velda, the jewels, the high society dame and her husband, all come up missing and presumed dead. Hammer blames himself and goes on the skid, becoming a drunk and a has-been. Until the day a man named Richie Cole, wounded and dying, hanging on just long enough to beg for Hammer to be summoned to his bedside, whispers some startling news to Mike before he checks out. Velda is alive though in great danger – having urged Cole to contact Hammer because he is the only one “terrible enough” to do what is necessary to save her! This is a terrific set-up for everything that follows. Hammer must not only race against the forces looking to kill Velda (a team of high level Soviet assassins, it turns out, seeking to silence her for the secrets she learned after being shanghaied and then spending all this time on the run inside the Soviet bloc), but he must also dodge the cops and feds who want to know what Cole told him, while all the time fighting his own diminished capacities after being shocked out of a seven-year drunk. Along the way he meets a Spillane-special female who he almost falls in love with; he dodges bullets and those seeking to “test” him in order to find out if he's got the old moves; and engages in a brutal fight to the death with one half of The Dragon assassination team before he finally puts the last of the pieces together that will ultimately lead him to Velda.
Damn! Writing about it after all these years and even after re-reading it once again before sitting down to do this piece, the power of it still hits as hard as ever.
Two final notes about THE GIRL HUNTERS:
- A film version came out in connection with the paperback release of the book. It starred none other than Mickey himself as Mike Hammer. Inasmuch as he was also executive producer and screenwriter, it was, as you might guess, pretty faithful to the book. What's more, Spillane made a damn good Hammer and it was a solid crime mystery overall. With good direction and co-stars like the veteran Lloyd Nolan and the voluptuous Shirley Eaton, it deserved to get better distribution and reception than it did. The fact it had to be shot in black-and-white for budgetary reasons and the timing was such that it was going up against the just-building James Bond craze combined to make it a little-seen gem. But if you ever get the chance to catch it on cable or DVD, it's definitely worth checking out.
- The copy of THE GIRL HUNTERS that I bought way back in 1963 (same as the cover scan at the start of this piece) is still in my possession. That's 55 years, folks. Think it might be kinda important to me? That book has endured countless moves, adding up to several hundred miles. In those 55 years, I've lost loved ones and friends, lost my youth and my hair, lost my patience with the world and most of the people in it. Yes, I've been blessed by many things along the way, too – no complaints. But the point is: My copy of this book has been with me all the way. What's more, in the summer of 1996, on the set of Max Collins' movie Mommy 2: Mommy's Day, I got it signed by the very gracious Mr. Spillane.
By this point, I trust I have impressed upon you that THE GIRL HUNTERS was/is a very important book to me.
If, for some ungodly reason, you have never read Spillane or never read this particular title, I urge you to seek it out and do so. You won't be sorry.