This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

New posts on Wednesdays. Email

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mickey Spillane, Reading Instructor

            Earlier this month, I heard a school principal make a good pitch for the value of mystery novels. I was at E.A. Hall Middle School in Watsonville, talking to seventh and eighth graders about my own mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, and Olga de Santa Anna, the principal, was in the audience.
            I forget what prompted her remark, but the gist of it was that reading fun books, such as mystery novels, is a good way of both learning and getting pleasure from reading. As an example, she cited her mother, whose first language was Spanish, and who learned to read English through the novels of Mickey Spillane.
            Somewhat forgotten now, Spillane (1918-2006) was the first hard-boiled detective writer to become a huge bestseller. I, The Jury, his debut book featuring detective Mike Hammer, was published in 1947 to supplement his income as a comic-book writer.  It sold six million copies, and he never looked back. All told, his books have sold more than 225,000,000 copies.

Meaning? Don’t Even Think About It

            Critics hated his books, which they panned for their graphic sex and violence, but Spillane ignored them and laughed all the way to the bank. In later years, some post-modern critics tried to find deeper meanings in his books, and, to his credit, he dismissed them as well. He was a hack who had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and was content with that.
            Olga’s remark about her mother, though, took me back to eighth grade. I learned to read before first grade, by following Sports Illustrated on my father’s lap. A lot of my childhood was spent with my nose stuck in a book. When I reached junior high school, my mother, in one of her few failures as a parent, tried to get me to read Literature — stuff like Moby Dick and Great Expectations.
            It didn’t work. I much preferred trashy mysteries and sports stories, and mom was beside herself. Finally, she went to Mrs. Castlen, the librarian at our junior high school, to vent. Mrs. C. heard her out and finally said, “Don’t worry about it. Just be glad he’s reading and enjoying it. His taste will get better as he gets older.”
            Perhaps she should have stopped after the second sentence. It’s true that two great high school English teachers, Carroll Irwin and Ruth Carruth, taught me to appreciate and enjoy Moby Dick and Great Expectations, and it’s true that I subsequently received a bachelor’s degree in English Literature.

The Redeeming Value of Junk

            The college degree in that subject has hardly guaranteed me a lifetime of well-compensated employment, and it’s an open question what reading the great books has done for my character and moral fibre. There are no doubt plenty of people out there who would be happy to tell you that I’m far from a model citizen.
            Would the world be a better place if everyone read Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain?  I have my doubts. But I have no doubts at all about the wisdom of what Mrs. Castlen and Olga de Santa Anna said.
            Learning to read, and learning to enjoy it — however that may be accomplished — is always a good thing. Reading is the most fundamental skill of the educated person, and when it isn’t accompanied by a sense of dread, there’s always room to move on and acquire new depths. Some will dive in head first, and others will barely dip a toe in the waters. Mickey Spillane may lead to Henry James, or maybe to Jim Thompson, but either way the door’s been opened a crack.