James M Cain (1892 -1977) is best remembered for a series of novels he wrote while working as a screenwriter in Hollywood during the 1930s, including "The Postman Always Rings Twice", "Double Indemnity" and "Mildred Pierce". These novels were highly popular in their day and were made into several classic movies. Sometimes denigrated as "pulp" or even as "trash", these novels offer their own vision of American life and make a substantial contribution to American literature. The three novels, together with five rare Cain short stories, are available at a modest price in this hardback edition from Everyman's Library. The volume also includes an introductory essay on Cain by Robert Polito together with a chronology of Cain's life and work.
The novels are set in the Depression-era 1930s in southern California, including Los Angeles and its environs. There is feeling of place in each of these novels, particularly of cheap seedy businesses, impoverished dwellings, lonely roads and railroad tracks, poolhalls, and chop houses. The novels offer a stark view of human sexuality and lust and a dismal view of human nature as motivated by greed, jealousy, and class envy. Cain portrays a society that is philistine and always on the make. Women tend to be the stronger characters in Cain's novels. They take the initiative with their men, most often by usuing their sexuality but sometimes through ambition and effort as well. The men tend to be shiftless, unfocused and driven by their passions. Cain's writing is tough, descriptive, colloquial, and short.
The two short works in this collection, "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity" are stories of murder and violence. Both are told in a confessional style by a male narrator who is about to receive his end for his misdeeds. This style gives the books a strong sense of immediacy. "Postman" is set in suburban Los Angeles among the poor. Its primary character is a 24 year old grifter who becomes involved with the wife of a small owner of a restaurant and plots with her to kill him. The man is referred to by the characters as "The Greek" and their are overtones of prejudice throughout the work. The sexual character of the work was raw and overwhelming in its day, and it remains potent. The illicit affair is described in great detail with strong overtones of masochism on behalf of the woman. The novel details the murder plots, the streets of Los Angeles, and the criminal justice system of the day. It ends with an ironic but fated twist.
"Double Indemnity" also involves a scheme by a woman and her lover to murder the husband. In this case, the motive is more greed -- for the proceeds of an expensive insurance policy -- than lust. The narrator is an insurance salesman who becomes infatuated with the wife of an executive of an oil company. Thus, the story takes place among the middle and upper middle classes rather than among the poor; and, as was "Postman" it is narrated by the primary male character as a confessional before he meets his end. The leading female character in the book is sharply drawn and substantially more evil than her counterpart in "Postman." The book shows a good deal of internal development of its characters and works to a tense ending.
The third novel, "Mildred Pierce" is the longest and probably most substantial of the three. It has the same basic noir setting as the earlier works -- southern California in the 1930, but is much more psychologically probing than its companions. It does not involve a murder, but it shows even more than the shorter novels the darker aspects of human nature and the effects of lust and greed.
Cain's major character, Mildred Pierce, is a strongly and complexly drawn figure. She breaks with her philandering, ne'r do well husband and attempts to raise two young daughters on her own. She plays favorites between her two daughters. When the younger, less favored daughter tragically dies, Mildred redoubles her efforts towards the older girl, who Mildred believes, has great talent as a classical pianist. The girl, Vera, is ungrateful and spiteful from her youth, and much of the book involves the unravelling of the relationship between mother and daughter.
When she leaves her husband, Mildred has no apparent skills beyond the ability to bake pies. Yet Cain portrays her as a character of drive and ambition. Mildred is able to parlay a job she is forced to take as a waitress in a cheap restaurant, where she is groped and ogled, into a career as an entrepreneur. With this success, Mildred's story is ultimately a sad one as a result of her relationship with her daughter and her failed affairs with two unscrupulous and lustful men following her break with her husband. Cain offers a tough yet hard portrayal of a woman in a book which may grow with the reader.
I enjoyed reading these novels by Cain together with the stories which have qualities similar to the novels. This is a valuable book for those readers interested in noir or in American literature. I am attaching links to the individual titles of these works for further information and reviews for the interested reader.
The Postman Always Rings Twice