Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Trace several examples of musical influences in either the subject matter or the techniques of James M. Cain’s fiction.
Several successful Hollywood films have been based on Cain’s novels. What qualities do you see in his novels that might be expected to translate well to the screen?
How well do the denouements of Cain’s fiction exemplify his belief that a wish come true is a “terrifying experience”?
Is Cain’s work in general a denial of the validity of what is commonly thought of as the American Dream?
In what ways is Double Indemnity superior to the thematically similar The Postman Always Rings Twice?
Trace the stages in the development of the title character Mildred Pierce in Cain’s novel of the same name.
Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
James M. Cain wrote novels, plays, screenplays, and magazine articles, in addition to short stories. The Mystery Writers of America designated him a Grand Master in 1970. His major novels include The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Mildred Pierce (1941), and Double Indemnity (1943). Earlier in his writing career, he was a reporter and an editorial writer.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Though sometimes included among the top writers of hard-boiled crime fiction, James M. Cain himself scorned this label. Critical opinion has swung around to his view that, indeed, he wrote about murders, from the criminal’s point of view, but he did not write crime fiction. What makes his writing so gripping is not the typical pull to resolve a puzzle but the fascination of ordinary people suddenly finding themselves making a wish come true, a concept Cain described as terrifying and which he compared to opening Pandora’s box. The influential existentialist writer Albert Camus claimed that his own novel The Stranger (1942) was influenced by Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
James M. Cain began his career as a novelist relatively late in life. Cain first wrote professionally as a journalist. Long after he had become famous for his fiction, he would describe himself in Who’s Who in America as a “newspaperman.” Cain used his newspaper work as a springboard to a broader literary career in the 1920’s. As a member of the editorial staff of the New York World he commented acerbically on contemporary American culture. Cain also authored a number of short stories that never appeared in hardcover during his lifetime. Following Cain’s death, Roy Hoopes edited three collections of his journalistic writing and short fiction, The Baby in the Icebox, and Other Short Fiction (1981), Sixty Years of Journalism (1986), and Career in C Major, and Other Fiction (1986). Cain long dreamed of becoming a playwright, but success eluded him. An early effort, Crashing the Gates (pr. 1926), failed before reaching Broadway. A dramatization of The Postman Always Rings Twice (pr. 1936) ran for seventy-two performances in New York. Cain spent many years in Hollywood as a screenwriter but received screen credit for only three films, Algiers (1938), Stand Up and Fight (1939), and Gypsy Wildcat (1944).
Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
James M. Cain’s standing as a novelist has long been the subject of critical controversy. His first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, became a sensational best seller, but the work’s lurid mix of sex and violence inevitably led to doubts about Cain’s literary seriousness. In the years that followed, Cain never strayed from his twin themes of crime and sexual obsession. Critical opinion was divided among those who appreciated Cain as a poet of tabloid murder, such as writer Edmund Wilson, and those who believed that Cain exploited rather than explored the material of his books, such as the novelist James T. Farrell. After his period of greatest notoriety during the Depression and the World War II years, Cain’s work was largely ignored by critics and scholars. He never received a literary prize for his novels, though late in life he received a lifetime achievement award from the Mystery Writers of America. Cain himself tended to dismiss critical commentary on his artistry, preferring instead to quote his sales figures. Novels such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce endure as classic examples of the “hard-boiled” or “tough guy” school of writing that flourished in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and inspired American film noir. Along with such contemporaries as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain will be remembered as a writer who illuminated an existential terror lying just beneath the often-glittering surface of American life.
Contribution (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
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.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Cain, James M. “An Interview with James M. Cain.” Interview by John Carr. Armchair Detective 16, no. 1 (1973): 4-21. Cain reveals interesting highlights of his career as a reporter and explains the influence of Vincent Sergeant Lawrence, a journalist and screenwriter, on his work. Cain’s comments on his three major novels are particularly informative. Includes an annotated list of people important in Cain’s life and a bibliography of Cain’s writings.
Fine, Richard. James M. Cain and the American Authors’ Authority. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992. A solid study of Cain’s attempt to create an American...
(The entire section is 725 words.)