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.)