During the decade before World War II, James M. Cain wrote some short, hard novels that caused a stir, becoming best-sellers and generating a critical buzz that darkened the space between art and obscenity. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Serenade, and Mildred Pierce have stayed in print to this day, and enough contradictory claims are still being made about them to assure them a lasting place in American literature, although just where that place might be remains uncertain.
They represent a certain kind of native American expressionism, in which lurid elements familiar from pulp fiction are recast by a transcendent starkness, and in which literary embellishment is eschewed, with the result that they seem all the more metaphoric. It is no accident that movies based on three of them helped to define the genre known as film noir, in which the Ufa vocabulary of cinematic expressionism was employed to elevate the B-movie into tragedy; or that Camus used Postman as his model for L’Etranger.
These four works constitute a mere detail of Cain’s career, falling within a seven-year stretch halfway through an eighty-five-year lifespan, of which he spent sixty years as an active writer, and in which he wrote eighteen books and numerous shorter works. As the remainder of his fiction approaches and then actually becomes pulp, his successes may seem fortuitous. Cain left little in the way of reflection. His letters and memoirs, quoted extensively by Roy Hoopes in his biography, appear to be devoted almost entirely to anecdote and surface detail. There are no literary essays, apart from some book reviews that seem cut from the blunt mold of his novels, and he discussed his own writing like a contractor, in formal or financial terms.
Cain’s obsessive concern with the authorial voice would suggest that all of this was the result of evasion rather than of an inherent triviality. All but three of his books are written in the first person, and the voice is consistent throughout his career: monosyllabic, unschooled, but eloquent when backed into a corner and forced to sing. Yet Cain’s background—genteel, academic, and more evocative of Booth Tarkington than of Jack London—belies this, and the rootlessness he shared with the drifters, miners, and salesmen of his novels was more the result of temperament than of socioeconomic decree. Needless to say, disparities between facts of life and settings of books hardly constitute evidence of slumming or hypocrisy. It is Cain himself who worried about the implied contradictions. “If I try to do it in my own language I find that I have none,” he complained very early, and the discomfort persisted until the end of his life. For him, writing of any sort involved adopting a guise, preferably a few rungs down the ladder of class. This reveals itself as a handicap, rather than a strategy, whenever the writing steps outside a certain narrow fictional avenue.
The pose eventually came to infiltrate his life, beginning with his …