Cain, James M(allahan) (Vol. 28)
James M(allahan) Cain 1892–1977
American novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, journalist, and dramatist.
Cain was the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and other novels which explore America's obsession with sex, violence, and money. His theme, the American dream-turned-nightmare, is complemented by stylistic directness and relentless action. Cain's so-called "hard-boiled" style of writing has put him in the company of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. However, one notable difference between Cain's work and theirs is that Cain used the point of view of the criminal rather than the detective. Cain's plots and characters are based on a simple formula: a "low life" character expresses a wish (likened by Cain to opening Pandora's box) and the fulfillment of the wish thrusts him upon the "love rack" as he becomes enmeshed in illegal and immoral activities. As Edmund Wilson pointed out, Cain's characters carry their own precipices with them and, in consequence of their passions, they eventually fall over, clutching the remains of their dreams.
Cain pursued several careers before the publication of his first and best-known novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. He developed his writing skills as a journalist in the employ of such luminaries as H. L. Mencken, Walter Lippmann, and Harold Ross. Many critics attribute Cain's terse, unembellished style to the restrictions of that profession. Although a number of Cain's stories were made into films—among them The Postman, Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity, The Embezzler, and The Baby in the Icebox—Cain's career as a screenwriter was unsuccessful, and he was not involved in the films made from his books. Although the cinematic quality of his work is often noted, he denied having written anything but Love's Lovely Counterfeit (1942) with the movies in mind. He did, however, admit that the camera's-eye-view he used helped him maintain the dispassionate appraisal and swift movement characteristic of his work. Perhaps because of these elements, Cain called himself a writer of the "pure novel," one in which the author does not intrude. Cain does, however, use omission, suggestion, and dialogue to manipulate the pace and to involve the reader in situations which might otherwise not be acceptable. Cain handles such controversial subjects as incest, prostitution, homosexuality, and pedophilia nonjudgmentally, causing some critics to complain about his refusal to condemn his immoral characters.
At one point, Cain decided that he had exhausted his formula. In an effort to diversify, he used a picaresque tale instead of a crime story in The Moth (1948), he turned to the past for the settings of Past All Dishonor (1946) and Mignon (1962), and he gave The Root of His Evil (1951) an uncharacteristically happy ending. These and other later works, such as Galatea (1953) and The Magician's Wife (1965), disappointed critics. Towards the end of his career, Cain was unable to find a publisher for several of his manuscripts. While The Institute (1976) and Rainbow's End (1975) have been published in recent years, two other books, announced for publication, were quietly dropped.
Cain's realism gives a stark account of American life as he observed it. He described the frustrations and anxieties of the Depression era without analyzing the society about which he wrote. Despite the tendency of some critics to discount his work as sensational and superficial, his early work was held in high regard by European intellectuals, among them Albert Camus, who acknowledged The Postman as his inspiration for The Stranger. Cain himself believed that posterity is the only critic of importance. He stated that his purpose as an author was to write a good story that would be bought and read. He often remarked that he never felt a sense of artistic accomplishment in his life, yet the continued appeal of his novels and the growing scholarly interest in his early work indicate that Cain has achieved posthumously the success he valued.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed., Vols. 73-76 [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8.)
Franklin P. Adams
Mr. Cain has written the most engrossing, unlaydownable book that I have any memory of….
"The Postman Always Rings Twice" is so continuously exciting that if you can put it down before you've finished it, you are not the reader I think you are…. To my mind, its style, which some will compare with Hemingway's, is better than most of Hemingway's, and as good as the Hemingway of "Twenty Grand." It is as tightly written, and as vernacularly dictaphonic as Lardner. And, like Lardner, it is slangless, though so intensely colloquial that to many readers it will give the effect of slang. I can't detect a stylistic flaw in the book.
It is, in addition to being a first-rate story from its beginning to its surprise—though not tricky—ending, thrilling, credible, humorous, heart-breaking, romantic, and realistic. I could say that it was unsentimental, too. But that is debatable….
This is neither a detective nor a mystery story. It is the breathlessly moving tale of Frank Chambers, the narrator; Nick Papadakis, the Greek proprietor of the Twin Oaks Tavern; and Cora Papadakis, his wife. They are a tough, lustful, selfish, sadistic, drinking, suspicious, double-crossing, two-timing trio. And in spite of it, or maybe on account of it, they are people that I liked, for the author liked them. He liked them, it seemed to me, with the scornful compassion that a man has who hates most members of the human race,...
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Every so often a writer turns up who forces us to revalue our notions of the realistic manner, for, no less than reality itself, it is relative and inconstant, depending on the period, the fashion, the point of view. There is the feeling of realism, of intense realism, in James M. Cain's work, and yet he cannot be compared to such diverse types of realists as Zola, Ibsen, Sandburg, Dreiser, or Hemingway. It is the hard-boiled manner that has been heralded for some time, and is now upon us. It is the manner that James T. Farrell has been attempting in an inadequate way, that Dashiell Hammett has stumbled on, even that Tiffany Thayer has used to his own deplorable ends. But Cain is to be compared to none of these, for where Farrell loses the strands of his story, Cain rushes forward like a hound on a hot scent; where Hammett's people act tough mostly out of boredom, Cain's are toughness itself; and where Thayer achieves his sensationalism by gaudy overstatement, Cain achieves his by the most telling sort of understatement. In short, Cain has developed the hard-boiled manner as a perfect instrument of narration….
Cain is an old newspaper man who learned his reporting well, so well that he makes Hemingway look like a lexicographer and Caldwell like a sob sister at her first eviction…. ["The Postman Always Rings Twice"] is a third as long as most novels, and its success is due entirely to one quality: Cain can get down to the primary...
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Mr. James M. Cain rings twice. This time it is with a story called "Serenade," one that will give the I-couldn't-put-it-downers and the stayers-up-into-the-wee-hours and the hair-turning-white-over-night industry something to do.
Critical readers who want to know whether "Serenade" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" are art will have to dope it out for themselves…. "Serenade" whizzes by too fast for any such judgment and yet it leaves the impression that there is a good deal of mature realistic wisdom in its careening, sirening, screeching journey from a Mexican bordello to Hollywood to the Metropolitan Opera House and the penthouse heights of New York's most chi chi set—back to the ole's and the tequila-soaked simplicity of Mexico.
A glittering murder is thrown in for good measure and some of the most toro passion and spine-shaking amor there's been around this sedate neighborhood since love retreated to the tabloid papers. All of this is set down with the hard concreteness, the repertorial genius that give James Cain's stories a unique specific gravity….
He can somehow compound elements of curiosity, adventure between alien races and temperaments, frenzied physical appeal and the desperate beauty of love excommunicated by conventional society—into a tremendously stirring romance.
The affair between Juana Montes and the singer is a most satisfying...
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Stanley Edgar Hyman
["Mildred Pierce"] has about three books worth of plot: financial ups and downs, everyone in bed with everyone else, six punchy trick endings one after another. Yet it has many good things. Cain makes no pretensions whatsoever to being a social novelist, but the scenes of Mildred looking for a job, Mildred waiting on table, and Mildred talking to the rich mother of the boy who got Veda into [James T.] Farrell's favorite condition, are bitter, incisive and unquestionably authentic. Cain's talent is the hare to Farrell's tortoise. He is a slick and accomplished writer, with a genius for effective, sparse dialogue and tight, neat plots with trick endings, preferably ringing twice. Like Farrell, he has been kidded out of the worst of his excesses,… but unlike Farrell he has now become readable.
And yet, for all of Farrell's weakness and Cain's competence, "Mildred Pierce" is essentially a more minor work than "Ellen Rogers." Weak and unimportant as the Farrell book is, it at least deals with believable people living in a real world, in a tangible city with streets in it. Cain deals with ciphers, picturesque cardboard characters whom he cuts into attractive designs. He has certain specified knowledges that he draws on in all of his novels: the workings of the law, the inside of the restaurant business and the world of music…. He has a few favorite themes: fate, the relationship of art and sex, and particularly the relationship of sex...
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The title of ["Love's Lovely Counterfeit"] is all too descriptive. Bang it on your chair-arm when you have finished, and it will ring false as a plugged quarter. But if you can stomach the first chapter, it will hold you to the end—even if the after-effect is comparable to a morning at the reptile-house in the zoo. (pp. 6-7)
Mr. Cain's new novel is conceived in sin; like [his] others, it proves that the wages of sin is death. But "Love's Lovely Counterfeit" can hardly be compared to his earlier work. In fact, it is redeemed from sheer pulp melodrama only by his spine-tingling treatment of "big" scenes, his wonderfully accurate ear for the rhythms of dialogue. The plot is as trite as most Grade B movies, with the same awkward transitions, the same contrived crises. Every character, including the protagonist, is a hundred-per cent heel…. "When you come right down to it," says one stir-happy gunman, "nobody isn't so hot. Not really they're not. But if they're buddies, they can generally figure an angle." If this novel has a philosophy, it may well be summarized in these lines.
The story deals with political racketeering in a Midwestern city….
"Love's Lovely Counterfeit" is packed with enough material for a dozen novels, but most of it is tossed away in shilling-shocker theatrics. It's a pity, for Mr. Cain's talent for creating horrific images is very real. Yet the people of this fictional world...
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These novels [Double Indemnity, Career in C Major, and The Embezzler, collected in Three of a Kind], though written fairly recently, really belong to the Depression, rather than the War, and make interesting footnotes to an era. They also make, to anybody who finds me interesting, an interesting commentary on my own development as a novelist, and as I am probably the most mis-read, mis-reviewed, and misunderstood novelist now writing, this may be a good place to say a word about myself, my literary ideals, and my method of composition. I have had, since I began writing, the greatest difficulties with technique, or at any rate fictive technique…. [For] ten years [I] resigned myself to the conviction that I couldn't write a novel. I tried plays with no success, and short stories with very little success, but with a curious discovery. What had made the novel so hopeless was that I didn't seem to have the least idea where I was going with it, or even which paragraph should follow which. But my short stories, which were put into the mouth of some character, marched right along, for if I in the third person faltered and stumbled, my characters in the first person knew perfectly well what they had to say. Yet they were very homely characters, and spoke a gnarled and grotesque jargon that didn't seem quite adapted to long fiction; it seemed to me that after fifty pages of ain'ts, brungs, and fittens, the reader would want to throw the...
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Cain is known as a novelist of the "hard-boiled" school, but the designation strikes me as covering too many other diverse writers and not saying anything about Cain's essential quality. Double Indemnity was published last year along with two other Cain stories in a volume called Three of a Kind. To that volume Cain has contributed a revealing preface on how he came to write the sort of fiction he does, and what sort he thinks it is [see excerpt above]. It makes some sense, as a writer's self-scrutiny often does. But Cain is too apologetic to see himself and his America whole.
Whatever the characters and plots of Cain's novels, there is always pretty much the same theme running through them. It is the theme of love and death coiled up with each other like fatal serpents. It is love-in-death and death-and-rebirth-in-love. Cain's idea as a writing technician is that if you mix a potion of love with the powerful ingredient of murder, then you get the strongest light possible shed on the love story. It is what he calls "murder as the love-rack." And in both Double Indemnity and in his minor classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice, you get the same theme: of a man and woman, powerfully drawn to each other, who commit murder for love and money, and then "find that the earth is not big enough for two persons who share such a dreadful secret, and eventually turn on each other." Thus, more than any other contemporary...
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In the preface to his new novel ["The Butterfly"] James M. Cain lashes back at Eastern critics who have accused him of imitating Ernest Hemingway and of writing with the movies in mind. To the first charge he replies that he is older than Hemingway and that the essential characteristics of his swift, lean prose were evident in his short story "Pastorale" written in 1927 before he had seen any of Hemingway's work. To the second charge he replies that although he has learned technically from the movies he has written only one novel, "Love's Lovely Counterfeit," with the screen in mind….
One must concede that Mr. Cain has good reason for anger. In their passion for simplicity and order some critics have been detecting the influence of Hemingway in any dialogue that has a resemblance to American speech as it is spoken. What they forget is that Hemingway is not alone in possessing a pair of ears. What they forget about Mr. Cain, in particular, is that though his dialogue resembles Hemingway's in sharpness and lifelikeness, the basic rhythms of his prose are quite different. Any one who will take the trouble to compare the dialogue in Mr. Cain's new novel with the talk in, say, "A Farewell to Arms" will recognize the difference at once.
As for the effect of the movies on Mr. Cain's writing, it would be idiotic to suppose that "Serenade" "Double Indemnity" or "The Butterfly" were written expressly for the screen. On the...
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Merely by hefting this full-size volume ["The Moth"] the Cain addict will sense instantly that it is the Malibu maestro's most ambitious effort to date…. Unlike all of Mr. Cain's previous books, it is both full-bodied and chronological, taking a boy from boyhood to maturity, and doing its honest best to give that protagonist a third dimension. The present reader … can only report, in sorrow, that Mr. Cain's most ambitious novel is also his dullest….
When you've closed "The Moth" you may know just how to crack a cash register—or earn your living as a fruit-tramp. Jack Dillon remains a vaguely glimpsed stranger who has talked you to death, and beyond. And Mr. Cain's famous sense of pace, his knack with the wages-of-sin pattern, are lost in verbiage.
James MacBride, "Mr. Cain, Jumbo Size," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1948 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 11, 1948, p. 5.
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Let us begin with Mr. Cain and his school. The Postman Always Rings Twice came out in 1934; and Mr. Cain's second novel, Serenade, in 1937. They were followed by other similar novels which apparently derived from Mr. Cain. The whole group stemmed originally from Hemingway, but it was Hemingway turned picaresque; and it had its connections also with the new school of mystery writers of the type of Dashiell Hammett.
Mr. Cain remained the best of these novelists. (pp. 19-20)
The hero of the typical Cain novel is a good-looking down-and-outer, who leads the life of a vagrant and a rogue. He invariably falls under the domination—usually to his ruin—of a vulgar and determined woman from whom he finds it impossible to escape. In the novels of McCoy and Hallas, he holds our sympathy through his essential innocence; but in the novels of Cain himself, the situation is not so simple. Cain's heroes are capable of extraordinary exploits, but they are always treading the edge of a precipice; and they are doomed, like the heroes of Hemingway, for they will eventually fall off the precipice. But whereas in Hemingway's stories, it is simply that these brave and decent men have had a dirty deal from life, the hero of a novel by Cain is an individual of mixed unstable character, who carries his precipice with him like Pascal.
His fate is thus forecast from the beginning; but in the meantime he has...
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One must read James M. Cain on his own terms. He is something more than a whodunit writer, something less than a serious novelist; but within the zone of psychological cheekiness that he has staked out for exploration, he is a master craftsman. In "Galatea," which is southern Maryland, rather than southern California, Cain edges a little closer to the method of Graham Greene. His characters are endowed with a self-awareness of guilt, purged of their sins through violence rather than good deeds. There is even a word or two in favor of God "Galatea" is a tender book, built around a grotesque situation, with only a few of the old Cainine snarls in evidence. (p. 4)
[The heroine] is in imminent danger of death by overeating, a terminal condition plotted by her husband as a means of getting her inheritance. Since this consists of a very profitable chain of restaurants, the inheritance is at once the means of destruction and the reason for it.
She is rescued, of course, by Pygmalion—in this case a young prizefight trainer who has taken weight off of some of the most gluttonous boxers in the business. By means of a wonder diet … he transforms his Galatea into a lissome and Junoesque creature indeed.
Shaw's version of this legend underscored the point that one must provide for a soul that one has brought into being just as one must provide for a child to which he has given birth. Cain reverses this...
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["Mignon"], James M. Cain's first novel in a decade, is nominally about the Civil War: period costumes aside, it barrels along like a private-eye escapade. Into New Orleans in the year 1864 comes Bill Cresap, invalided out of the Union Army and on the lookout for a stake. Before you can say Raymond Chandler, a Creole damsel in distress named Mignon Landry has appeared at Cresap's hotel room door, with a heartrending plea to get her daddy out of a military prison, where he has been sent for trading with the enemy. From this point on Mr. Cain never looks back, pulling onstage one gaudy character after another, including a sporting lady (gambling) who vies with Mignon for Cresap's heart—and involving one and all in some get-rich-quick trading in confiscated cotton. There's enough blood and lust in all this to satisfy the author's public. However, one nostalgic admirer of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" would prefer Mr. Cain in modern dress—where the blood he lets seems redder and the dialogue truer.
Martin Levin, in a review of "Mignon," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 6, 1962, p. 31.
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[The Magician's Wife], Cain's first novel in some time, follows in all essentials, as the publisher candidly admits, the pattern he developed more than thirty years ago. There is a minor variation in that the hero is not a more or less disreputable drifter but an up-and-coming executive of a meat-packing company…. This man, Clay Lockwood, stops for lunch at one of a chain of restaurants with which his firm does business, and is immediately impressed by the hostess…. After lunch he says, "Sally, I've fallen for you," and, as every reader of Cain knows, the only question is how long it will take them to get into bed together….
But, like other Cain heroines, she has a husband she would like to get rid of—Alexis, a magician, son of "a fabulously rich man." She wants, Clay suspects, to dispose of the father-in-law, too, and he decides to have nothing more to do with her…. But no experienced reader will believe it for a moment.
There are many complications….
It is unfair to reveal too much of the plot of a novel of this sort, and I do not intend to do so; but no one will be surprised to learn that Clay kills Alexis; otherwise, of course, there would be no story. Clay's murder, however, is nowhere near the climax of the novel; all sorts of things happen after that—a marraige, a trial, another murder, and so on. (p. 27)
Edmund Wilson in 1940 hoped that Cain might go on...
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Cain was one of those writers who first amazed and delighted me when I was old enough to start looking around and seeing what was being done in American literature. Steinbeck, Farrell, Saroyan, Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe were some of the others. But Cain—momentum was something he had a patent on. Or maybe acceleration is the word. Picking up a Cain novel was like climbing into a car with one of those Superstockers who is up to forty by the time your right leg is in the door. Today, twenty years later, I have read The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce again … and I am still amazed and delighted … partly because I can now see how complex Cain's famous "fast-paced," "hard-boiled" technique really is….
Cain was a bit notorious in the 1930's and 1940's as a novelist of "sex and violence." I can remember that myself. I suppose a lot of critics never got beyond that notion. The Postman Always Rings Twice was the reigning hot, taboo novel before Forever Amber. It was banned in Canada; the old Hays Office blocked MGM's first efforts to bring it out as a movie—and so on. God knows how many concupiscent young men stole hornily to pages 71 and 72 of the original edition, to the "Rip Me" scene, in which a man and a woman are trying to make a murder look like an automobile accident…. (pp. v-vi)
One of Cain's secrets is that he never uses a detail,...
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Tom S. Reck
The literary reputation of James M. Cain is evidence of justice denied, a classic example of scholarly myopia toward the man whose novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (and we have Camus's word for this) was a model for The Stranger. Critics offer some begrudging admissions about Cain's power but mainly they only patronize his work. Typical comments say things like "good writing on less than good material," "a bath in sensationalism," or "hard-boiled hocus-pocus." They piously suggest that "the nearest architectural analogy … is a mile high outdoor juke box" or that "all the research necessary … could have been gathered in an afternoon at a third rate movie house."
Some of the depreciation has nothing to do with Cain per se. His large (and largely "illiterate") audience renders him suspect, as does his "easiness." The Puritan ethic, at work among the very cogniscenti who satirize it in the bourgeois, works against him: anything as much fun as The Postman must be questioned. Although we have moved a long way from banning a book like Postman, the feeling that Cain appeals to our prurience still prevails and causes us to adopt an attitude of either silly defensiveness or postured superiority.
Students of fiction often appraise Cain at face value, adjudge his "modesty" to be "simplemindedness," take him no more seriously than is absolutely required, as opposed to what might be possible. He...
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If you have the courage, take a look this summer at [Cain x 3]…. Courage is needed because of an entire generation of tough-guy writers—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, B. Traven, Horace McCoy and others of the Southern California school—James M. Cain is possessed of the most brutal, elemental, and intrinsically pessimistic view of human events and possibilities. Only another Californian, Robinson Jeffers, working up the coast at Big Sur and in another genre, narrative poetry, matches Cain's abysmal bleakness.
Something happened in Southern California during the 1930s. Some new vision of evil rushed in upon the American consciousness….
It was a demicivilization of expatriates, and James M. Cain was part of it, brought there, like Fitzgerald and Faulkner, to write for the movies…. Yet Cain looked around himself, noted what he saw, and in 1934, after more than a decade of trying to write fiction, published The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the finest moments of depression literature. (p. 31)
A Cain story rushes forward with the headlong pace of a writer who has left everything save narrative on the cutting room floor. Yet we put Cain down with a conviction of social density and accomplished experience; for he triggers in us an act of imaginative cooperation. Convinced that Cain's fables of lust, murder and money are true to the epistructure of life in the...
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James M. Cain was a caustic writer of newspaper editorials who published his first novel at 42 and his 18th at 84. His short, squalid thrillers made him as famous as Hemingway in the '30s; often more purple than noir, they creaked with ludicrous plot contrivances and panting dialogue, but how the pages crackled! From the first sentence, pitching the reader headlong behind the headlines of tabloid murders, to the last irony, which sounded a note more in keeping with Puritan tribunals than the requisites of hard-boiled realism, Cain drummed his trashy American fairy tales with relentless drive. By 1950, however, his tempo enfeebled partly by his own literary ambition, his audience headed for sleazier pastures. His once enthusiastic critics were silent, his later books ignored. Cain receded into the past, a relic of the Depression frequently bracketed with contemporaries in the hard-boiled schools (detective and proletariat divisions), and his lingering admirers resorted to indirection in praising him—hoisting the flags of existentialism and sociology….
Yet a few of Cain's novels have been successfully reprinted every decade or so, and the biggest groundswell in 30 years has slowly taken shape in the years since his death in 1977….
What's more, there is Cain's much touted rediscovery by Hollywood, where he labored for years as a scriptwriter and consultant, though not on the adaptations of his own books…....
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There is nothing in ["The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction"] that will enhance Cain's reputation or seduce new readers….
[The editor] tells us that one of Cain's themes is the doom of joint guilt: When two people engage in an evil act, they cannot share their terrible secret and live on the same earth—they turn on each other. But to me, the theme that purrs in the engine of Cain's best work … is the proposition that love is dangerous. For Cain, when the lower regions start to percolate, there is sure to be a burnout in the brain. Cain is not a man for meaningful relationships and marriage contracts; for him the libido levels logic every time….
The pieces in the first part of this collection smack of cracker-barrel cuteness and mawkishness. Cain himself claimed that many of them were conscious imitations of Ring Lardner. But fidelity to regional language is not enough, without the writer's adding bottom, as did Twain and Faulkner. Without that substance Cain becomes indistinguishable from Titus Moody of Pepperidge Farm.
In this collection, the short stories and the magazine serial, "The Embezzler," are interesting for the formative wisps we find in them of Cain's later themes and style. When he moves to California from the East, we hear the stirrings of the later polished Cain voice, and we can see Cain's facility for delivering more information in one good paragraph than most...
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