TNB Night Owl – Mickey Spillane’s Tent Days

Mickey Spillane street sign, photo by Garak99

This weekend, the fiftieth anniversary of Bouchercon – one of the largest gatherings of mystery writers in the world – is being held in Dallas, and I’ve been spending my time running between work, home, and the hotel.

It’s left me a little ragged and exceptionally tired… and thinking about some of the old-school authors. My love of Rex Stout is not hidden; that said, I also greatly enjoy the work of Chester Himes, Craig Rice, Cornell Woolrich, and Mickey Spillane, among others.

Spillane was among the most popular authors in American history. At one point, seven of the top ten best-selling fiction books ever were Mike Hammer novels. He remained appreciative of his readers – he called them his clients, because he never forgot that he was working to provide them a service – through all of his days. What is not generally known, though, was just how quickly he rose to prominence.

I, the Jury was the first novel in the Hammer series, and Spillane famously pounded it out. Having alternately claimed it took nine and nineteen days, he eventually admitted that his memories of the time were faulty and it was one or the other. After he wrote it and submitted it, he got his advance… two hundred dollars.

Advances are notorious among writers. They are, literally, money provided toward the eventual royalties from book sales. Because publishers are famous for engaging in questionable counting practices, it’s common for advances to be the only money an author gets for a book, unless that book goes into multiple printings. At that point, if a book goes into enough printings that it becomes impossible for a publisher to pretend it’s earned more in royalties than the advance would cover, the publisher starts paying out… either in checks or, in the case of Spillane, directly to a bank account.

Two hundred was a lot of money in the 1940s, but it didn’t approach serious wealth. What it did was allow Spillane and a friend to purchase a tent and some building materials toward construction of a house. They scraped together another thousand dollars between themselves, bought the property in New York state, then began building the house.

It took them about two weeks of intensive labor, constructing the framework of the house by themselves. But while they were living in the tent and engaging in difficult labor, Mickey’s pal started wondering just why they were working so inefficiently.

“(W)e bought the property and squeezed into the tent, and we built the house. It was real funny. I’ve got a picture, standing by this house, half-built. We were still laying cinder blocks and my friend, who was handling all my finances because, hell, I still can’t count, said, “Why don’t you get a truck?” And I said, “We haven’t got the money.” And he said, “You got two million dollars in the bank!”

The Strand magazine

Spurred by word of mouth advertising and a reputation for being salacious, I, the Jury had sold millions of copies… in just the first week of its publication.

Question of the night: Have you ever been pleasantly surprised with “found” money?

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.