James M. Cain Cain, James M(allahan) (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cain, James M(allahan) 1892–1977

Cain was an American novelist and screenwriter. He is best known for The Postman Always Rings Twice, which became a popular film. Considered a precursor of the "hardboiled school" of realistic novelists, Cain frequently used as his fictional milieu the violent world of mobsters and racketeers. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 73-76.)

James T. Farrell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James M. Cain's novel, Mildred Pierce, wantonly squanders what could have been a very good and representative American story; it could even have been a great one. (p. 79)

One of the striking and promising features in the early portions of this novel is that the two main characters are presented with reference to objects and to conventional conceptions. They possess little of the individuality of many merely literary characters. The style of the book is objective, even a little flat in places; it records movements, performances, the handling of things, such as Bert bracing the trees, Mildred cooking, and the ingredients which go into the making of something she will sell. Thus there is presented a life in which things, commodities, have almost become the protagonists. (pp. 80-1)

[Mildred Pierce] has been developed in terms of Hollywood simplicities but does not indicate the character of the opportunity Cain has squandered. Cain's stories are swift moving, punctuated by shocks and violence. His novels are written as a kind of literary movie. But since greater latitude is permitted the novelist than the scenarist, novels like Mildred Pierce have the appearance of greater reality than do most films. Unrestrained by a production code, a Cain story can follow the patterns of real life more closely than can a motion picture. In Mildred Pierce, Cain began with a real problem, one relatively untouched in contemporary writing. Mildred Pierce could have been a poignant account of the middle-class housewife. The fictional character, Mildred, could have been...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

W. M. Frohock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Two things may be said about James M. Cain with the greatest assurance. One is that nothing he has ever written has been entirely out of the trash category. The other is that in spite of the cheapness which sooner or later finds its way into his novels, an inordinate number of intelligent and fully literate people have read him. He has been translated in many parts of the world, and writers whose stature makes him look stunted have paid him the compliment of imitating him—as Albert Camus did, for example, in The Stranger. (p. 87)

The preface to Three of a Kind makes it clear that [Cain] has schooled himself grimly to produce the kind of effect he wants, with every sentence supercharged and a new jolt for the reader on every page. He is one of the few writers now practicing in America who are really sure-handed in the manipulation of their materials. And if he writes what he does, it is because he has had ample proof that it is what the public wants. (pp. 87-8)

The Postman is a distinguished book, certainly not for what is in it, but for the number and kind of people who read it. An analysis of it is bound to teach us a lot about the literary climate in America circa 1934.

The Postman is Cain's book, almost in the same sense in which Don Quixote is Cervantes' book: nothing he ever writes will break down the association—he can neither live it down nor live up to it. The obvious ingredients of its success have been enumerated many times…. The list must always include a large item of just plain trickery. By this I mean things like the strange device at the end of The Postman, where we suddenly find that what we have just read has been written down by a man in his death cell. The first-person narrative has carried us along with it because we have been listening to the man talk. The sentences and even the mistakes in grammar are the sentences and the mistakes of a living human voice, and catch the rhythms of vernacular speech with an authenticity which can be achieved only the the special talents of an O'Hara, a Lardner or of Cain himself—talents close to a kind of genius. And during the course of our becoming acquainted with Frank Chambers, the one fact of which we have been the most thoroughly convinced is that he is anything but a creature of superior perception. Discovering that this story which has so long enthralled us is composed of the deathbed jottings of a man who could have made his living any time writing for M-G-M is like being caught by the rising houselights wiping our eyes at an especially corny movie. (pp. 88-9)

It takes very few samples like the above to convince one that Cain works on the assumption—justified by the facts, of course—that he can do with the reader just about what he likes. The reader is a sort of victim, whose weaknesses are there to be exploited…. The significant fact about this trickery is that if we did not happen to think twice, Cain would be getting away with it completely.

The scenes in which Cain lays his novels have much to do with the success of such legerdemain. Somehow the phoniness of The Postman is less phony because the action takes place in and around a hamburger joint in a part of California which has magnified the tawdriness of such establishments until the neon light and the false front create what is almost a special and separate cosmos. In the first part of Serenade you get the less well-known parts of Mexico. The backdrop of The Butterfly is the creek-branch country of West Virginia. In every instance, the place is one which naturally collects curious characters, so that the reader does not have to strain at the incredibility of daughters whose one purpose in life seems to be incest, [or] Irish steamer captains with a taste for Mozart…. So long as the scene helps trick you into accepting the people, Cain has no worries. The plot will do the rest.

For the essence of the Cain novel, and the second big item on our list of ingredients, is the plot itself. Everyone says so, including Cain. In the preface to The Butterfly he explains that what he writes about is not...

(The entire section is 1723 words.)

David Madden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Cain's best fiction, aesthetic distance is achieved and sustained partly because of his obsessively objective, neutral, dispassionate attitude toward the basic elements of his novels. His techniques forcibly, deliberately, and continually turn us back to the pure experience itself. (p. 61)

[In Serenade] Cain shows how one man seizes the American dream of success and how it conflicts with his dream of the primitive woman. (p. 63)

In Cain's novels, the amateur hero's relationship is simply with a woman, and they go on what Cain calls a love rack together because one of them wishes for something and the wish comes true. When the American dream comes true, it turns into a nightmare in an everlasting present in which the lovers are isolated from the human community…. Cain's heroes are inside-dopesters with an impulse to self-dramatization who speak in an aggressive voice and who fall from a height they have willfully reached. Jack Sharp boasts superior know-how in every area touched upon in the novel…. [Typically], in Serenade, it is sex and violence all the way…. [The] theme is that a man out of touch with himself and his masculinity can learn the wisdom of the body from a woman who is sexually supercharged. (p. 64)

Stripping down to essentials is not a conscious theme in Serenade, but Cain, like Hemingway, demonstrates in his technique itself how life, stripped down, feels…. Although Cain operates mainly within the realm of terror, he strives in almost every novel to convey at the height of terror a sense of the beautiful. (pp. 65-6)

Cain's imagination does not process in terms of a conception and thus transform his raw material …: rather, with basic fictional techniques, Cain expertly manipulates and controls all the elements for calculated effects. So we spoke of Cain's inventive powers, his structuring mind—a mind aware of itself and of the reader's mind….

[Cain's vision] has the impersonal objectivity of the camera eye. Cain doesn't set out with a vision—his concentration on craft...

(The entire section is 870 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a special debt we owe them, a debt to Chandler, Hammett and Cain. They excised pointless ornamentation, moved their stories forward with a spare, ruthless vigor and so superimposed the realities we already knew with characterizations we could believe, that they achieved a dreadful, and artistic, inevitability….

"The Institute" is a faint and embarrassing echo of the persuasion that used to be [Cain's]. It is not the intent of this reviewer to make a witless and vulgar display of disapproval…. The intent is to show where grasp of the methods and materials has faltered and weakened.

The plot is uniquely absent.

It is too easy to isolate the improbabilities….

Instead, it is interesting to isolate Cain's remaining strengths. Pages 64 through 75 concern the use of business muscle to force the acquisition of a company in trouble. A lot of this is tight and fast and believable. (p. 18)

Cain, without a plot, without the fascinating convolutions of chicanery, has to make do with emotional and cultural complications, and here he is too much at the mercy of his own dead horses, which whip back when whipped.

And so, one wanders down these confusing and windy corridors, listening for the distant Hoohaw, a rattle of chains, a distant flavor of tension remembered.

The debt remains, and here in "The Institute" are some gossamer strands of the control which once created that debt. (p. 20)

John D. MacDonald, "A Mystery and a Romance," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 22, 1976, pp. 18, 20.