Despite midcareer pretensions to high literature, James M. Cain wrote, admittedly, for two reasons: for money and because he was a writer. He had no lasting illusions about great literary art and had only contempt for critics who sought intellectual constructs in works of literature and who, for their own convenience, lumped writers into schools. Cain opposed and resisted the notion of the tough-guy school, and yet he developed a first-person style of narration that, in its cynical and incisive presentation of facts, merits the appellation “tough” or “hard-boiled.” Critic David Madden calls him “the twenty-minute egg of the hard-boiled writers.”
This style proved profitable, and Cain, in his own hard-boiled way, believed that “good work is usually profitable and bad work is not.” In the case of his fiction, this proved to be true. His work was profitable and remained in print during and after his lifetime. Good or bad, fiction is what Cain wanted most to write; he is quoted in an interview as saying, “You hire out to do other kinds of writing that leaves you more and more frustrated, until one day you burst out, say to hell with it all and go sit down somewhere and write the thing you truly want to write.”
Yet it seems that it was not the mystery story in which Cain was most interested, despite his recognition in this genre by the Mystery Writers of America (which gave him its Grand Masters Award in 1970), but something like the novelistic equivalent of Greek tragedy. His frustration at his failure in dramaturgy was profound; it makes sense that his novels, like classical Greek tragic drama, demonstrate the essential unhappiness of life, the devastation borne by the hubris manifest in the lust and greed that lead to murder, and the human desires that predispose people to incest, homosexuality, or pedophilia. Cain’s fictional personae are always minimal, as they are in Greek tragedy, and his descriptions of his characters are as spare in detail as a delineative tragic mask.
“Pastorale,” Cain’s first published short story, contains the standard constituents of almost all of his fiction: a selfishly determined goal, excessive and ill-considered actions in pursuit of that goal, and the inability of the pursuer to abide the self into which the successful actions have transformed the pursuer. A yokel narrator relates that Burbie and Lida, who want to be together, plot to kill Lida’s husband, a man much older than she. Burbie enlists Hutch, a vicious opportunist, with the false bait of a money cache. Burbie, lusting after Lida, and Hutch, greedy for money, kill the old man.
Hutch, who learns that the money cache was a mere twenty-three dollars but not that it had been scraped together by Burbie and Lida, decapitates the corpse, intending to make a gift of the head to Lida. The intent is frustrated when Hutch drowns, and after Hutch’s body and the husband’s remains are discovered, it is assumed that Hutch was the sole killer. Burbie, although free to possess Lida, confesses everything and awaits hanging as the story ends. The story is abetted by Cain’s standard elements of sex and violence.
The Postman Always Rings Twice
In 1934, Cain published his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which proved to be his masterpiece. In the story, a man and a woman, consumed by lust for each other and by monetary greed, successfully conspire to kill the woman’s husband, again a man older than she but with a going business that will ensure the solvency of the conspirators. The incapacity of the principals to accommodate themselves to the fulfillment of their dream leads to the death of the woman and, as the novel closes, the imminent execution of the man.
The opening line of The Postman Always Rings Twice (“They threw me off the hay truck about noon”) came to be acclaimed as a striking example of the concise, attention-getting narrative hook. Cain’s use of “they” is existentialist in its positing of the Other against the Individual. Jean-Paul Sartre’s story “Le Mur” (“The Wall”) begins in the same way: “They threw us into a big, white room. . . . ” The last chapter of The Postman Always Rings Twice, like its first paragraph, makes much use of the pronoun “they,” culminating with “Here they come,” in reference to those who will take the narrator to his execution. This classical balance of beginning and ending in the same context is characteristic of Cain’s work.
Double Indemnity, Cain’s masterly companion to The Postman Always...
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