Saturday, July 01, 2006

Cain Was More Than Able

Thanks to Bill Crider for reminding me that today marks novelist/journalist James M. Cain’s 114th birthday. And I’m sure Cain would be celebrating, had he not already died an alcoholic at age 85, in 1977. Certainly best remembered as the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941), Cain was born in Maryland, aspired early to become a singer like his mother, worked in journalism with both H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann, and moved to Hollywood to write movie scripts but wound up penning cinematic novels, instead.

Most of Cain’s success as an author came between the early Depression years of the ’30s and the end of the Second World War. His hard-boiled yarns were usually set in California (though one of his personal favorites, The Butterfly [1947], involves incest and murder in the West Virginia coalfields). They often revolved around men who fell in love with femmes fatales, only to get mixed up in criminal acts and eventually have their paramours betray them. Raymond Chandler, a Cain contemporary, was not overly fond of having his work compared to that other novelist’s (despite the fact that he helped Billy Wilder adapt Double Indemnity for the silver screen). In a 1942 letter to the wife of his publisher, Alfred K. Knopf, Chandler grumbled:
... I hope the day will come when I won’t have to ride around on [Dashiell] Hammett and James Cain, like an organ grinder’s monkey. Hammett is all right. I give him everything. There were a lot of things he could not do, but what he did he did superbly. But James Cain--faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, 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. Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated. A brothel with a smell of cheap scent in the front parlor and a bucket of slops at the back door. Do I, for God’s sake, sound like that?
Others, however, have been more generous to Cain. In his 1997 study of mystery fiction, Guilty Parties, Ian Ousby writes that Cain “is usually put first on the list of those American writers whose crime novels, without adopting the conventions of the hard-boiled school, breathe a distinctly hard-boiled atmosphere.” And The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing (1999) opines that
Compared with the voices and narration of private-eye novelists with whom he was often compared, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the diction of Cain’s narrators has the pure simplicity of Horace McCoy and of the more literary [Ernest] Hemingway; his plots were more unified and tighter. Cain agreed with the observation that his best work was “pure”--conceived and executed to produce an experience for the reader, rather than to illustrate a moral or to lay out any other thematic trappings. The purity and the staccato, metallic style of The Postman Always Rings Twice so affected Albert Camus that, in a revised version, he adapted it to the first-person narration of The Stranger (1942).
Due to the fact that several of his early novels were turned into movies, Cain achieved a renown that probably wouldn’t have come his way otherwise. Yet his later turnout, primarily of tales with historical settings and paltry few of the trappings that would’ve earned them “hard-boiled” classification, were not nearly so well-received. Regardless, in 1970 James M. Cain was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

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During the Monday, July 3, broadcast of her WEBR radio program, “It’s a Mystery,” host Elizabeth Foxwell will commemorate Cain’s birthday by presenting a radio production of Double Indemnity starring Burt Lancaster. The radio drama can be heard here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember Jim Burke saying to me that Cain is vastly under-rated. Cain was perhaps the best sociological commentator of his time.