Thursday, May 25, 2006

Mommie Damndest

When James M. Cain is mentioned nowadays, it’s usually in association with his first novel, 1934’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which has been filmed three times, most recently in 1981 (with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson). As hard as a “six-minute egg” (to quote The New York Times), fatalistic in its viewpoint and unusually open in its treatment of sex and violence, Postman was banned as obscene in Boston and Canada, but won Cain the admiration of American critic Edmund Wilson, who labeled the novelist the “poet of the tabloid murder.” (Raymond Chandler wasn’t nearly so admiring; he dismissed Cain as “a Proust in greasy overalls.”) Cain went on to publish more than a dozen subsequent novels, many with historical settings, and put his stamp on the field of film noir, before he died at age 85 in 1977. However, explains novelist Laura Lippman, “the conventional wisdom is that he never equaled his debut novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

But Lippman insists that conventional wisdom is wrong. Writing in Slate, the Baltimore author (whose ninth private eye Tess Monaghan novel, No Good Deeds, should hit bookstores late next month) instead applauds Mildred Pierce, Cain’s somewhat less-celebrated 1941 novel of greed, ambition, and betrayal, as “my favorite Cain work ... the unicorn of crime fiction, a noir novel with no murder and very little crime.”

Lippman observes: “With this book’s subversively skeptical view of maternal love, Cain proved that noir could be set in the most domestic, middle-class locales. He also showed that a man can write beautifully from a woman’s point of view.” She goes on to decry the sanitized 1941 film version of Mildred Pierce, for which star Joan Crawford won an Academy Award, because it eliminated the adultery from Cain’s grim yarn and substituted murder--considered somehow more acceptable to film audiences. The movie also changed the novel’s “cleverer” ending. And Lippman concludes with an anecdote sure to send Cain fans running to their bookshelves for confirmation:

Cain, who didn’t believe in advances, sold Mildred Pierce, his fourth novel, for $5,000, a significant sum at the time. To celebrate the sale, [biographer Roy] Hoopes writes, Cain bought a snowball maker, like the one he remembered from his boyhood. The snowballs weren’t much good, but the machine made divine mint juleps. This is an apt metaphor for Mildred Pierce, a book that delivers much more of a wicked kick than expected, especially if you’ve been raised on the saccharine pieties of the film.

Read Lippman’s full essay here.

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