- Reviewed by
Over the years, the Popular Press of Bowling Green State University has been responsible for much of the best and worst criticism of popular fictional genres. The two books here reviewed present part of the spectrum of the press's success and failure. Let's enter near the bottom so we can come out on top.
"Critics usually miss the point with Spillane," Max Allan Collins and James L. Traylor assert early in One Lonely Knight. Still, even Spillane's severest critics must admit, the authors continue, that Mike Hammer's creator is a master, in severe critic Anthony Boucher's words, of "compelling you to read the next page." Perhaps. I, however, suffer a different if related debility as reviewer: I feel I may have missed the point not of Spillane but of One Lonely Knight, though I do confess to having felt compelled to turn its pages, often hoping the next would be better than the last, occasionally hoping the next would be the last.
Out to avenge Spillane's "critical hammering," Collins and Traylor have inadvertantly gunned down their hero if only because they have written a book that—given what it does not attempt, the topics it will not investigate—implies Spillane is guilty of work that cannot support close, critical scrutiny. Taking pot shots at any likely villain, the authors often seem, like Hammer at his worst, only out for blood: "Few critics to date have had even a passing undestanding of what Spillane is up to"; "Perhaps it's reasonable to suggest that as long as Hammett and Chandler are read, so will be Spillane; he is their peer, but his less (self-)consciously literary approach has kept him from being so recognized."
This last quotation takes a rare walk down the often mean street of comparative criticism, for one curious feature of One Lonely Knight is its unwillingness to place Hammer within the (ware)house of hardboiled detective fiction. Indeed, despite the growing (hence still-living and so perhaps boring) body of criticism devoted to detective fiction as a genre, Collins and Traylor have little to say of a generic nature. Nor have the authors solved the mystery of Spillane's popularity, a subject interesting for sociological and psychological if not aesthetic reasons. Nor do they seem to have many clues regarding what to make of Spillane's often distressing politics, sexism, racism, sadism.
Potentially telling observations are recorded, but to pursue such leads is, apparently, to fall victim to "dull academic analysis." Hence, we learn that "the sensuous encounter" often "stops short of consummation," only to be quickly followed "by a scene of violence that does reach a climax"; but what this might signify, we must puzzle out for ourselves, hopeless Watsons that we literary critics are. Nor will the reader who recalls Wayne Booth's brief but damning sketch of Hammer's moral code (The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed., p. 84) find such objections redressed here. And Spillane comments such as "A novel's like a joke: you wade through the crap to get to the punch-line"—which might give one pause—pass as the off-the-cuff aw-shucks routine of the artist masquerading as "storyteller," as though Spillane were a trenchcoated Faulkner. [End Page 425]
The authors' occasionally poor prose does nothing to help their case—"Hammer 'adopts' a child whose crying father William Decker leaves in a bar"; "Sal's face had been reconstructed after the fire, and is now calling himself Marty Steele." Making matter worse are the substitution of plot summary for analysis; assertions too frequently left unsupported and underdeveloped; the backtracking and repetitiveness resulting from the decision to organize the book around the Hammer novels' chronology (with side trips into his adventures in other media—riiagazines, radio, television, movies...