What a debut. The Postman Always Rings Twice was James M. Cain's first novel, published relatively late in life for a writer, when he was in his forties. But.... more
After the fall
For a time, I thought of James M. Cain as an also-ran of American writing. On the third or fourth pillar below the greats in the literary pantheon. In the less exalted gallery of crime writers, he would come well after the holy trinity of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald—a commercial writer who never really rose above his magazine origins.
But reading his slender, sensationally successful novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, led me to trying the meatier Mildred Pierce. Then his less celebrated works of that early period. Then his later works. And his stories.
And a disturbing thing happened. Cain became one of my favourite writers. Uneven maybe but always interesting.
And I started noticing other readers too quietly regarded him as an American master. Quietly because no literary person wants to be caught praising books labelled potboilers of sex and violence.
Even early in his career Cain's work was dismissed as lightweight. His first works were called imitations of Hemingway, despite his not having read (and admired) the younger writer yet. As Cain's books were being turned into films, Raymond Chandler summed up a disparaging view of his rival in a letter to a publisher:
He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naix, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way.
Cain was also taken to be a hardboiled writer, another label at which he bridled, as if he only served up tough protagonists in cynical works suited to film noir adaptation. He saw himself as exploring what happens to people who achieve their dark dreams and cannot live with the consequences. But novelist James T. Farrell complained "writing like Cain's exploits rather than explores the material of life in America".
It is hard to understand this today. Much of his writing is undeniably sensationalistic and often deals with lowlifes, but we've seen more explicit and grittier work from highly regarded writers since then.
Maybe it's the plot-driven nature of Cain's work that offends, that makes "serious" writers want to class him as merely vulgar and popular. While Chandler may have written great scenes between characters, Cain wrote great situations to put the characters in. Often their reactions seem rushed as if the writer's in a hurry to get to the next development: they meet, they fall in love, they have sex, they betray each other, yada yada yada, and then—
to be fair though, his less-than-admirable characters are usually telling the stories in their own rough voices, so it makes sense the narratives don't come out like character studies suited to academic study. They do come with brilliantly colloquial narration.
And wonderfully real dialogue. Cain went further than most writers of his time in moving stories ahead through dialogue. Pages filled with brisk exchanges feathered in quotation marks, with nary a "he said" or "she said" to interrupt them.
Cain developed this quote-heavy style with his early creative writing for magazines—sketches heavy on speech and straight dialogues, and eventually short stories and serials, most narrated in a lower-class vernacular. A memorable dialogue of this period is "Theological Interlude" (1928), in which two parents and an uncle discuss a daughter's near-death experience and her subsequent running off with a preacher. Among his popular writing at this time is "Pastorale" (1928), a macabre tale of small-town murder and mayhem.
Cain's first book, Our Government (1930), collected some of these early short pieces, though many were never published in book form until decades later or even posthumously.
That first book led Cain to a brief job in Hollywood as a screenwriter, at which he flopped. But he kept writing stories, and one of them, "The Baby in the Icebox" (1932), won greater fame, even being adapted for a movie, She Made Her Bed. "Icebox" showed his ability to take a plot concerning ordinary people doing extraordinary things and compress it into a believable story. (The title may have been too grisly for Hollywood, but it's actually both accurate and misleading.)
In 1933, Cain was enticed back to Hollywood, where he spent fifteen years, making big salaries from studios while producing few scripts but turning out mostly successful stories and novels.
Among his best known in this decade are "Dead Man" (1932), about a young drifter who accidentally kills a railroad cop, and "The Girl in the Storm" (1939), about another drifter and young woman who take shelter together in a deserted gas station.
The acclaim for his stories created pressure on Cain to write his first novel. The Postman Always Rings Twice, published in 1934 when Cain was well into his forties, is too short to be considered more than a novella. But its tale of a drifter (the narrator) conspiring in murder with the wife of a roadside diner owner packs as much development and emotional wallop as most books twice as long. It also shows the extension of the theme that had become a staple of Cain's stories, as well as shaping up as the story of his own life: success leading to a fall. The book was a commercial and critical smash and has been made into films several times, including the John Garfield and Lana Turner vehicle of the same name in 1946.
In 1936 a magazine bought another Cain novella for serialization: Double Indemnity. It wasn't released in book form until 1943, partly because Cain himself criticized it as "tripe". He admitted he wrote it to cash in on his fame as author of Postman and the two narratives do bear certain similarities: a man and a woman team up to kill her husband but turn on each other afterwards. But it was another sensation and made another hit movie, the film noir classic starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck (actually coming out two years before the American Postman film).
Postman and Indemnity were followed by Serenade (1937), a longer story told by a washed-up, possibly bisexual American opera singer hiding in Mexico where he hooks up with a prostitute who becomes the love of his life. The novel is neglected today, but it's an exhilarating ride. From beginning to end, the story moves in directions no reader could anticipate, yet is credible and involving. And surprisingly moving. (Nearly two decades later it was scrubbed clean of sexuality and made into a Hollywood movie starring the operatic Mario Lanza, who was a big Cain fan.)
Mildred Pierce (1941) is Cain's first major work to be told in the third person, following the relationship of a successful restaurateur and her spoiled daughter. Cain considered it inferior, lacking the bite of his first-person narratives. But it's a terrific novel of social realism. However, when Hollywood made it into a movie starring Joan Crawford in 1945, it became a film noir murder mystery. It wasn't until 2011 that a made-for-TV serial did Cain's novel justice.
The long fall
Love's Lovely Counterfeit (1942) was one of Cain's first commercial misses during his Hollywood period. The tightly written story of love, lust, and crooked politics in a corrupt town resembles Dashiell Hammett's Glass Key. But during the Second World War it struck an unpatriotic chord and failed to find a publisher or readers immediately, although a heavily panned film was made of it in 1956 under the name Slightly Scarlet. Several other projects—screenplays, serials and novels—never saw the light of day at all.
One book that did do well—becoming one of his biggest sellers—was a slim, fast-paced story of greed, incest, and murder in the hills of Kentucky, The Butterfly (1947). Today it strikes the reader as one of Cain's least substantial efforts. The 1982 film starring Pia Zadora is one of the worst reviewed movies ever.
But a large disappointment followed Butterfly. Cain considered The Moth (1948) his best novel but it sold poorly. And so he left Hollywood for the last time, as a self-described failure.
Over the last three decades of his life he continued to write novels of different kinds, some that sold moderately, some that didn't, and some that were never published. Most were throwbacks in theme and language to previous years. When he died he was working on a new novel, The Cocktail Waitress, a throwback to his old style that not published (to acclaim) until thirty-five years later.
In his final years of life, Cain experienced a bit of a resurgence of interest in his work. What he referred to as his "reincarnation" was kicked off by the publication in 1969 of Cain X 3 (1969), which published his old hits, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity, between hardcovers again.
For a certain period of his late career, as with some other writers of his era (Scott Fitzgerald and John O'Hara come to mind), Cain's work was thought of as being of a certain era—of the 1930s and early 1940s in his case. He was perceived as not keeping up with the concerns of subsequent generations of readers who moved on to new writers.
But now we are so many generations further along, we have a longer perspective on Cain's work. We can go back and pick out the best from the mixed bag that is James M. Cain's work. Not only need we not agree with his esteemed critics of the time but we need not accept the author's own judgment. Cain was not always his own best critic.
Yes, much of his work was done for fame and money and, yes, much of it is overheated (at least for its time), but we don't hold either of those charges against other great writers in history. Time to see with clear eyes where the best of Cain's work should place him in the pantheon.