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Ms. Mike Hammer promotes her book

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Ken Bell

 

The email arrived about a month ahead of the 18th South Carolina Book Festival, held May 17-19 in Columbia, asking if I would moderate a session or two.

Since my next book, “Southern Justice: The Execution of George Stinney Jr.,” won’t be published until early next year, I had offered to moderate a session at this year’s festival.

Theresa Wallace, this year’s festival director, said she remembered me from my past experience with the festival in recent years and asked if I could help. She told me to look over the schedule and let her know if any appealed to me. Right away, I spotted one that I wanted.

It’s been well-documented that the late Mickey Spillane, creator of the Mike Hammer character, the protagonist of Spillane’s books and a TV show during the 1950s and ’60s, had been a good friend of mine. I met him while I was a reporter in Myrtle Beach in the early 1990s and we became fast friends. He encouraged me back then to “get out of newspapers and into books where there was more money.” I eventually did.

So when I saw that Mickey’s widow, Jane Spillane, had written a book titled, “My Life With Mickey,” I jumped at the chance to lead the Saturday afternoon session.

I contacted Jane and told her I would be interviewing her at the festival about the book. I explained that she could read an excerpt or two and we could take a few questions from the audience before I’d lead her to the book-signing tables, where she could sign books for her readers. We made a list of several questions.

As time for the festival drew close, I debated an idea that I thought the audience would enjoy, but figured I had better get permission from the festival director first. After all, this was going to be something different from anything that had previously been done at the festival. Wallace responded to my email saying it would be fine as she preferred to give session leaders a lot of leeway.

Then I figured I’d call Jane back to let her in on it – sort of.

I told Jane I thought it would be fun if I introduced her and then suddenly morphed into the Mike Hammer character to welcome her. That’s all I told her about it and she agreed.

In the days leading up to the festival, I pondered many ideas. I wanted to have some fun, yet I kept reminding myself that the session wasn’t about me; it was about Jane Spillane and her new book. Still, the ideas kept coming.

I even considered nixing the entire idea and just playing it straight by the book.

It wasn’t until I was actually driving to the festival Saturday morning that I made up my mind to do it. Jane knew I was going to introduce her while wearing a hat, but she didn’t know the entire story.

We entered the room and found it overflowing. More chairs had been brought in to accommodate the crowd.

I was a little nervous as I read the prepared statement before the session, laying out the ground rules, such as asking everyone to turn off their cell phones. Then I went right into Jane’s bio. As soon as I got to the end, I looked over at her and said, “You know, Mickey would never forgive me if I didn’t give you a proper Mike Hammer welcome.”

‘Hi, Doll. You’re

looking good’

With that, I reached beneath the podium and donned my suit jacket and fedora and assumed my Mike Hammer persona.

I turned to Jane and said, “Hi, Doll. You’re lookin’ good. But you always look good.”

I thought I was going to surprise her, but instead she jumped right into character with me, flashed her baby blue eyes at me, smiled, and said, “You’re lookin’ pretty good yourself, big fella!”

I almost fell out of character, but quickly composed myself and added the next line that I had prepared on the drive over.

“Word on the street is you’ve written a book about Mickey. Is that true?”

“It sure is,” she said, not missing a beat.

“Is it any good?”

“It is if you want to know the real Mickey Spillane,” she said.

I nodded toward the crowd.

“Are they here to buy your book?”

“Well, I hope so,” Jane said.

I put both hands on the table, pulled my hat down closer to my eyes, leaned forward toward the crowd, and gave them a menacing leer.

Looking back at Jane, I said, “Yeah, I know this crowd.” Then I looked out over the packed room and added, “And I know where you live, too.

“If anyone in the crowd gives you any trouble, you just call me and I’ll play a little chin music on ’em, OK?,” I said, swatting at my chin with my fist.

Without knowing it, Jane actually stole my next line as she mentioned Hammer’s gun.

“What about ‘Betsy’?” she asked.

Even though I had not been able to pat my side and mention “Betsy” as I had planned, I went ahead with my next line.

“When Betsy comes out to play, the talking stops. Everybody know that.”

The crowd was mesmerized. It was obvious they were enjoying the show.

“Velda and I are looking forward to reading your book,” I said (still in the Hammer character.) “Back when Kendall Bell’s first book came out, Mickey told him he hoped Bell would make a lot of money. So, I’m going to tell you the same thing: I hope you make a bundle. And welcome to the South Carolina Book Festival. See ya ‘round, Doll. Knock ‘em dead.”

I took off the coat and hat as the crowd applauded.

I was relieved that the stunt went as well as it did and Jane played along.

After that, I asked Jane a couple of prepared questions before asking her to read from the book. About 20 minutes later, her voice cracked slightly as she read a particularly touching paragraph.

I also saw several people in the audience wipe their eyes. If they had not walked in expecting to buy a book, Jane had just changed their minds.

We took several questions from the audience before it was time to end.

Everywhere I went for the rest of the day, people approached me saying how much they enjoyed the session.

Saturday evening as I left to head home, I spotted Jane in the parking lot and she called me over.

“We sold lots of books today,” she said. “I think even my publisher was surprised. She told me it looks like we’re going to have to do a second printing next week.”

I smiled and said, “I’m proud of ya, Doll. And so is the Big Guy.”

We said our goodbyes and promised to stay in touch.

I climbed in my car, but paused to savor the moment one more time.

Yes, I think Mickey would be proud.

Lancaster native Ken Bell is a full-time writer and now lives in Sumter