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From SAND'S WAR
THE MYSTERY OF ENNIS WILLIE
In junior high and high school, in Muscatine, Iowa, I developed an obsession for crime and private eye fiction, with a particular fixation on Mickey Spillane and his Mike Hammer. I had been enthusiastic about detectives as an offshoot of my childhood fascination with comics in general and Dick Tracy in particular. I had read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, a little Ellery Queen, and a lot of Leslie Charteris’ avenging Saint.
When in the late ’50s, a wave of tough TV sleuths hit the airways, I was there—and, noting that some of these small-screen detectives had literary roots, I began reading the novels that had spawned the shows. Paperbacks from Cohn’s Newsland and hardcovers from the Muscatine Public Library introduced me to (among many others) Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Richard S. Prather, and ultimately Mickey Spillane.
While a lot of these novels had their racy aspects, Spillane was forbidden territory. I started reading hardboiled fiction at age 12, and it wasn’t till I was 13 or 14 that I could pass for 16, which seemed the magical (though not mandated in any way) number that a suspicious clerk at a register wanted to hear (“How old are you, son?”). So of all these great writers, I read Spillane last (well, I’d already read most of the endings at Cohn’s, hiding between spinner racks).
I would soon come to find that Spillane did not enjoy the literary stamp of approval that Hammett, Chandler and even James M. Cain seemed able to achieve. I researched the field (not easy in the early to mid 1960s) and learned about Carroll John Daly, whose Race Williams preceded even Hammett’s Continental Op and who was the role model for Mike Hammer.
But Mike Hammer was the role model for everybody else, at least everybody else in the paperback original field that had been created for two reasons: (a) to replace the dying pulp magazines, and (b) to take advantage of the sex-violence-and-vengeance reading audience Spillane had revealed.
Mickey had many imitators, and any number of writers who weren’t really imitators but whose publishers packaged the work of those writers to look like Spillane imitations. Even the covers of Hammett and Chandler showed the Spillane influence, and Mickey himself gathered a satellite group of writers around him, pals who imitated the Mick with his blessing and even tutelage—Dave Gerrity, Earl Basinsky, Charlie Wells.
But Spillane was a tough writer to imitate. That first-person voice was a poetic noir one-off, and equally distinctive were the speed of the narrative, the larger-than-life usually willing women, the monster-like thugs, the nightmare surreal urban landscape, and particularly the shock endings that brought each Spillane novel to an abrupt conclusion—no cute tag scene where Perry Mason explains to Paul Drake why it was necessary to fly a helicopter over the Grand Canyon, or how Perry knew that three identical guns were switched with each other. Mike Hammer wasn’t about details—Mike Hammer was about killing bad guys (and gals), often in emotional scenes awash with gunfire and gore and often flames, at least when the rain wasn’t driving down.
Nobody got it. Everybody tried. Nobody succeeded.
But how I looked for somebody who could. Spillane had only written six Mike Hammers before going into temporary semi-retirement, and when he returned with The Girl Hunters in 1962, he wrote only a relative handful of Hammers after that. Sure, he did the four Tiger Mann spy novels, but that just wasn’t the same.
So anything that looked vaguely like a Spillane novel in the early sixties got my attention. Most, like John B. West’s Rocky Steele novels for Signet (Spillane’s own publisher), descended into unintentional parody. Prather’s Shell Scott had always known the only way to win in Spillane’s world was to kid it—but not spoof it. Perhaps the closest was Mike Roscoe, a team of real-life P.I.’s with their own brand of noir poetry. But nothing satisfied. Not really.
Then, in 1963, I picked up a paperback original published by Merit Books—Scarlet Goddess. The cartoony cover (which reminded me of the work of comics genius Bob Powell) may have attracted me. I was vaguely aware that Merit Books were “dirty”—or anyway “adults only.” Merit Books and the slightly better distributed Novel Books were published by Camerarts in Chicago, and were mostly tough guy mysteries and crime thrillers passed off by their publisher as softcore porn. Some of the novels approached that—Jack Lynn’s wild Tokey Wedge series (a parody of the already tongue-in-cheek Shell Scott novels) certainly came close.
Scarlet Goddess, however, turned out to be something very special—it was, in part, a Spillane imitation, getting everything amazingly right: the speed, the larger-than-life characters, the nightmare landscape, the teasing sex, the hard-hitting violence, and even the shock endings. Most surprising was what it lacked: Spillane’s first person. This novel was told in a third-person that was first-person once removed, tightly in the point of view of its ex-gangster hero, Sand, and damn near as hypnotic as Mike Hammer’s direct voice. That the most successful Spillane acolyte could abandon first-person seemed to me then particularly impressive. And it still does.
That novel had a pulp sweep that included an unusual supernatural element right out of H.P. Lovecraft (so does the even more wonderful And Some Were Evil). I was knocked out, and started looking for other novels by the author of Scarlet Goddess—Ennis Willie. What an evocative, unusual byline . . .
This was no easy task. Merit Books weren’t to be found on every newsstand. Not hardly. And when they were available, they might be racked in back with the other “dirty” books, where teenage toes could only lightly tread. All through high school, I searched for these novels. I even ordered some directly from Camerarts—a Sand novel was, I believe, the first book I ever ordered by mail. Finding an Ennis Willie (hell, finding any Merit Books title) was a small miracle. (Still is.) This made collecting them all the more joyous, as did the author’s decision to use Sand—the enigmatic, larger-than-life ex-gangster—as a series character.
I say unashamedly that Sand had as much influence on my Nolan character (hero of my first novel, Bait Money, 1973, and a series that followed) as the more obvious source, Richard Stark’s Parker. If you ever read the first Nolan I wrote, Mourn the Living, not published until many years into my career, you will see how I followed the Willie template . . . just not as well as he did.
As the years passed, I would share my enthusiasm for Ennis Willie with other tough-guy enthusiasts, including such mystery writers as Ed Gorman, Steve Mertz, and Lynn Myers. Many letters—and later, e-mails—were exchanged on the subject of Ennis Willie. I wrote an essay about the writer (focusing on And Some Were Evil) for Bill Pronzini’s 1001 Midnights, and this stirred some interest. Quite a few people in the mystery field knew of my love for Willie’s work; many wondered, just as I did . . . who was Ennis Willie?
And why did he stop writing? Or had he kept writing under another name? Had “Ennis Willie” been a pseudonym? Much speculation centered around the name itself—was Willie an African-American writer? There was a black poet named Willie Ennis—was he also Ennis Willie?
Well, you can curse the Internet for all the intrusion it has brought into our lives, but I credit it for at least one thing: solving the mystery of Ennis Willie. Just a few years ago, he turned up out of the blue, letting anyone interested know that he was alive and well, perhaps a little surprised by the interest in his long-ago work, but obviously proud of what he’d accomplished. I should say “quietly proud,” because this Southern gentleman is at least as taciturn as his great hero.
I am proud and pleased to have played a small role in getting Ennis Willie out of the shadows and back into print. He is at once the most successful Mickey Spillane imitator and a distinct original talent with a voice all his own.
Max Allan Collins
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