James M. Cain is best remembered as the tough-guy writer (a label he eschewed) who created The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1936). Both books have enjoyed as much popularity as their film versions. Though Cain gained some fame as a Hollywood scriptwriter, he did not write the screen adaptations of either The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, which attained the status of classic films noirs. Cain had a significant impact on French writers, notably Albert Camus, who nevertheless denied the influence as forthrightly as Cain had done with that of Ernest Hemingway. In the Europe and United States of the 1930’s, years in which laconic, unsentimental, hard-boiled fiction found ready readership, Cain contributed mightily to this style of writing. That his work is still popular in the twenty-first century is testament to his gift for spare prose and his insight into the darkness of the human soul.
Cain’s narrative style entails a simple story, usually a “love rack” triangle of one woman and two men, presented at a very swift pace. His economy of expression was greater than that of any of the other tough-guy writers. Cain’s characters and situations were consistent with no sociological or philosophical theme, although many were illustrative of the inevitability of human unhappiness and the destructiveness of the dream or wish come true. It was this structural and narrative purity, devoid of sentimentality and sustained by the perspective of the antiheroic wrongdoer, that won for Cain an enthusiastic readership in France, including the admiration of Albert Camus, and a secure place in the history of American literature.