In the late 1970s, working as a journalist for a New York syndicate I went down to Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina to interview the legendary mystery writer, Mickey Spillane.
Beginning in 1947, Spillane wrote a series of hard-boiled paperback novels starring a tough-as-nails private detective named Mike Hammer. Titles such as Vengeance Is Mine and I, The Jury and My Gun Is Quick sold in excess of 180 million copies and created a publishing phenomenon that spawned movies and TV series.
Spillane’s novels were pulp fiction pushed to the limits of the day, filled not only with a ruthless vigilante-style violence but also with sex that, while never explicit, was certainly suggestive enough to keep a kid like myself eagerly turning pages by flashlight, late at night, under the covers. This was, after all, forbidden literature. My parents did not want me reading such filth. I, of course, consumed it avidly.
By the time I interviewed him, Spillane’s glory days were past. He was in his early sixties, content to drink beer and hang out with the three of his four children who were living with him in a big, rambling oceanside house. He still wrote but children’s fantasy adventures, not mysteries. He would talk about the old glory days, but reluctantly. He never was the city slicker, even though he was born in Brooklyn, more a country boy who disliked big cities and the glitz and the glamor of fame.
I thought a lot about Mickey Spillane when I started writing my own private detective novel, The Sanibel Sunset Detective. In a curious way, my encounter with him served as a source of inspiration. I knew I couldn’t write a character like Mike Hammer, Shell Scott or Mike Shayne, the shamuses of my adolescence, guys who could handle women and guns with equal alacrity.
But suppose you weren’t like those guys, suppose you didn’t know anything about guns and not too much more about women. Suppose you were someone more like, well, me -- and that someone decided to become a private detective on an island like Sanibel? What would happen to him? What kind of trouble would he get himself into?
Thus was more or less born my main character, an ex-newspaperman named Tree Callister who used to come to Sanibel and Captiva as a child but hadn’t been back since, not until his new wife, Freddie, was offered a job on the island.
What would happen, I wondered, if this character who can’t do much of anything found himself involved in the sort of mystery any self-respecting private eye out of my youth might have encountered--but with a few differences.
Tree would be totally unsuited to the dangerous world he finds himself in, but as much to his surprise as anyone else’s, he discovers that not only can he operate in this world , but he actually begins to enjoy himself, liking the idea of danger and duplicity, attracted to a landscape on which no one is quite what they seem.
I decided to play with some of the traditions set out in the private detective novels. Instead of a femme fatale showing up at his office (although she does make an appearance later), Tree’s first client would be a twelve-year-old boy named Marcello. He has the princely sum of seven dollars with which to hire Tree to find his mother.
Soon enough Tree stumbles upon a headless corpse and finds himself involved with the aforementioned femme fatale who is married to an imprisoned media tycoon. There is also a nasty hood who threatens Tree’s life, a couple of cops who wouldn’t mind pinning a murder or two on him, and a former girl friend, now an FBI agent, who shows up to make Tree’s life even more complicated.
I also wanted to write about a happy marriage. I didn’t want yet another single detective, living alone, drinking heavily, embittered by the world. I wanted a couple, more like Nick and Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett‘s The Thin Man, the only other instance in recorded detective fiction that I can think of where the detective and his wife are allowed to unconditionally love one another. I wanted a similar kind of relationship for Tree, albeit without the alcohol that so casually fuelled Nick and Nora’s marriage.
As for setting the story on Sanibel Island and environs, I have my brother Ric to thank for that. He is the president of the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce so it’s his job to extol the virtues of this bit of paradise, a job he does exceedingly well.
My wife Kathy and I fell in love with the place almost as soon as the plane landed at Fort Myers Airport. I am something of an interloper here, I know, but a happy and totally admiring interloper, much like Tree Callister himself.
I plan to return often. So does Tree. The Sanibel Sunset Detective is the first in a series of Tree Callister adventures. The private detective inside me has found an alter ego in Tree, and a home on Sanibel and Captiva Island.