One of the questions that this review mercifully will noLhave to answer is "why should serious critics study or even admit to reading popular fiction?" The impact of new schools of criticism has combined with broadened areas of study in the profession to generate a great deal of interest in genres formerly ignored or derided. And more importantly, critics using a variety of approaches are producing interesting, provocative studies of writers who wrote in neglected genres. The five works listed above are evidence of the interest in detective or crime fiction; they illustrate a range of possible approaches.
Cain's Craft, by David Madden, is a collection of loosely connected essays about James M. Cain, a tough-guy writer of the Thirties. The author's intention is to demonstrate his "interest in Cain as it developed through related interests from 1960 to 1984." Cain's work is examined in six different sections: his relationship to tough-guy and proletarian writers, his career as a writer of popular fiction, his writing for the movies and the movie adaptations of his, novels, his novels as "pure" novels, his possible influences on European fiction, and the aesthetics of popular fiction.
Despite this announced framework Madden really has two methods of critical analysis. The first, illustrated by three of the essays, focuses on some aspect of Cain's writing career; sections two, three, and four (as listed above) provide interesting discussions of the period and Cain's novels. But the sections remain separate essays, lacking overt connection and an overarching thesis. Madden's second critical approach is to compare a Cain novel with one or more works that exemplify a genre. Three essays (sections one, five, and six) feature comparative analyses of The Postman Always Rings Twice with Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and B. Traven's The Death Ship; The Postman widi Camus's The Stranger; and Serenade with Wright Morris' Love among the Cannibals.
In the last two essays listed, Madden describes the similarities and connections among the works. In both cases, Cain suffers in comparison with Camus and Morris. A troubling thought occurs—why compare Cain to superior writers when the comparison always works to Cain's detriment? Madden most often admits that Cain's treatment of similar situations or themes is not as effective or impressive as the other writers'. On the whole, neither essay aids in understanding the power that Madden claims for Cain. In the first essay of the collection, a discussion of three novels of the Thirties, Madden's knowledge of Cain's work allows him to show Cain to best advantage. His reading of the three novels draws several striking parallels of characterization, style, and world view that exemplify the tough-edged presentation of life common to writers such as Cain, McCoy, and Traven. Although this essay does explain something of Cain's "craft," the [End Page 370] collection as a whole seems incomplete. Madden never explains the reasons for Cain's popularity and power as a writer.
On the other hand, Peter Wolfe's Something More Than Night: The Case of Raymond Chandler never wavers from its focus. And it is that devotion to a single idea that provides its focus and its limitations. With this volume, Wolfe has completed book-length studies of Chandler, Hammett (Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett ), and Ross Macdonald (Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams: The World of Ross...