James M. Cain Cain, James M(allahan) (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, but loves humanity….

This is a book, in the story and the telling of it, that I praise without reservation.

Franklin P. Adams, "Hardboiled and Exciting," in New York Herald Tribune Books (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1934, p. 7.

Harold Strauss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 impulses of greed and sex in fewer words than any writer we know of. He has exorcised all the inhibitions; there is a minimum of reason, of complexity, of what we commonly call civilization, between an impulse and its gratification. In the broadest sense he is no asset as yet to American literature, for he adds nothing in breadth, but only in intensity, to our consciousness of life. But we want to see more of his work. Meanwhile, we defy anyone who has broached that remarkable first sentence to put his book down without finishing it.

Harold Strauss, "A Six-Minute Egg," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1934 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1934, p. 8.

William Soskin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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 and violence. All his books give the sense of having been pieced together skillfully out of these shiny bits of glass, having no organic existence or internal necessity. The blurb speaks of Cain as a "first-rate storyteller," which is so unconsciously fair and exact an estimate of his ability as well as his limitations that no reviewer can add more, except to say that "Mildred Pierce" doesn't seem to be so shocking as either "The Postman Always Rings Twice" or "Serenade," his first two. (p. 442)

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Tortoise and the Hare," in The New Republic, Vol. 105, No. 14, October 6, 1941, pp. 441-42.∗


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 are cardboard bogey-men, warped at creation. In this novel, at least, he seems content to be a comicstrip Doré.

William DuBois, "The Racketeers," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1942 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 11, 1942, pp. 6-7.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Max Lerner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stephen Stepanchev

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edmund Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Dempsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Tom Wolfe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom S. Reck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kevin Starr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gary Giddins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Joe Flaherty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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