RARA-AVIS: Re:Brief Thoughts on Spillane (a couple of spoilers)

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 02 Dec 2006


Re your comments below:

"I, THE JURY has a great beginning and a great ending, but the rest of it is really a lot of vamping to the finish. The beginning of ONE LONELY NIGHT is, I think, the single best sustained piece of writing Spillane ever did, but it soon descends into a lot of cliched anti-Communism which, no matter how you feel about the subject, feels like a real comedown in intensity. VENGEANCE IS MINE is an extraordinarily interesting book, and a cultural critic could have a field day with it, but it's absurdly dated and certainly has lost a lot of it's punch."

I quite agree with your comments about ITJ, and, in fact, I think I've said much the same thing here. I also agree about the opening of OLN, although I think the intensity is maintained quite well throughout the novel. My one complaint about that book is that I though Spillane was way too easy on the commie filth.

VIM is certainly dated, but I don't know about ABSURDLY dated. It's a long build-up to a surprise ending that isn't revealed until the last word in the book. I think it might have worked better a short story than as a novel, but the fact that Juno's particular quirk is has gotten more exposure in the last half-century or so, robbing the ending of a lot of its shock power, doesn't make it aburd, just of its time.

"Even the two books of his I like the best, MY GUN IS QUICK and THE TWISTED THING can't be said to be successful in terms of plot. You can guess the villain in GUN by sheer process of elimination, and THING gives away the game in the very title."

I'm not going to argue that plot construction was Spillane's greatest strength. Clearly it wasn't. What's interesting to me, though, is that the plots ARE constructed, (maybe not well-constructed, but constructed) as fair play puzzles, with the villain unrevealed until the end, and the clues needed to identify the villain given to the reader as the novel progresses. Spillane, in his way, is playing at the same game as Queen, Christie, and Carr. Not playing in their league, of course, but playing the same game.

I'm not sure I agree that THE TWISTED THING (one of my favorite Hammers, too) gives away the solution in the title, though. Having said that, perhaps the original title, FOR WHOM THE GODS WOULD DESTROY, would have been better, more in line with the Biblical-Avenger tone of titles like I THE JURY, VENGEANCE IN MINE, MY GUN IS QUICK, etc.

Another interesting thing about TTT, considering that it was the second Hammer novel written (though not published until the mid-60's), is how comparatively mellow Hammer is. There's little sign of the the psychically damaged figure on OLN, still agonizing over his final dispatching of the killer in ITJ. In fact, the Hammer of TTT actually fits better into the
'60's run of books, in which Mike has come to terms with the kind of life he leads, and has relaxed a bit.

"The first thing I want to say about Spillane is that he is a writer of moments. For all of his pose as the consummate self-depracating tough guy professional, he is in fact something of a Romantic -- by which I mean his work, when it's good, is good due to it's deliberately heightened pitches of emotion. Nobody can sustain that kind of level over a length of time, which is why even the best Spillane novels have draggy patches. A Spillane novel builds to a peak -- it's also no accident that a lot of his best moments are endings."

Some of Spillane's strongest work comes during the supposed "long silence" betweem KISS ME, DEADLY IN 1952 and THE DEEP in 1960, when he supposedly had stopped writing altogether. In fact, he was keeping his hand in writing a number of short stories, and at least one Spillane scholar has suggested that the novella length suited him best precisely because it was a length at which the high emotional pitch could be sustaine throughout the work.

"(There is still a notion in some circles that Spillane was some kind of grunting clodhopper, but THE TWISTED THING I think is the final refutation of that. It is a well-written and well plotted -- I think his best job of plotting, actually. It covers a world that Spillane mostly did not deal with and did it credibly. Of all things, Spillane is actually quite good at descriptions of nature.)"

And, again, that it is such a well-written and comparatively well-plotted novel is particularly remarkable given that it was only his second book, written immediately after ITJ.

Rural descriptions, and rustic, natural settings, are also more common in his short work.

"The other thing I want to say about Spillane is this. The hb novel has as it's engine a process of uncovering. Generally, the protagonist reveals the truth of the world, which is seen to be far worse that what surface reality presents. Usually the truth of the world is unconquerable: the hb protagonist basically just makes his/her seperate piece with it.
(While conversely the noir protagonist is subsumed by the 'truth.' But I saw there was a whole discussion of that here already, don't want to open that up again.)"

Just as well, since you're dead wrong on both counts. The HB isn't necessarily about uncovering truth, nor is noir about being subsumed by truth.

"What Spillane did was take that uncovering to a kind of poetic conclusion. Hammer is constantly uncovering Hell, basically. And I mean that in the religious sense of the term -- in MY GUN Hammer and his bad guy are literally in flames screaming. (The books are constant knocking out of the props of the world: love, women in general, respectable old men, children, etc. What's revealed is corruption, yes, but corruption in a sin-and-damnation sense. Twisted thing, indeed.)"

Perhaps this world-view, clearly in place prior to his highly publicized religious conversion, is what led him to a sect like the Jehovah's Witnesses.


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