James M. Cain
James M. Cain; drawing by David Levine

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 face, which is variously described as resembling that of a stevedore, a bricklayer, or the chief dispatcher of a long-haul trucking concern. He talked out of the side of his mouth. It is notable that he most wanted to emulate his mother and become a singer, until his impressive boy soprano changed into a rather workaday barroom bass. The interpretation this suggests is as difficult to resist as it is to dignify. In any case, Cain regarded his life as a series of ill-fitting suits. The enormity of Roy Hoopes’s biography can be summarized baldly: he wrote this, he wrote that, and he did a lot of itching in between. Like so many other writers, Cain may have yearned for a life of action, but he did not, for example, hunt big game or join popular insurrections. Instead, he toiled ceaselessly at his Underwood standard, drank overmuch, and married four times. If he nurtured a certain amount of murder in his heart, it was promptly transferred to his characters.

It is revealing that he described himself as “a newspaperman” to the end, evoking the only large-scale action he saw outside the military, although his reportorial career effectively ended over half a century before his death. The cause of Cain’s impatience and discomfort can only be guessed, but it was probably nothing so simple as could be cured by a few brawls. What is maddening about Cain is that someone whose concerns seem so essentially commonplace could at the same time be so elusive, although the commonplace is as misleading as in his best books, which remain authentic and powerful while always skirting Grub Street.

Cain was born in 1892, on the eastern shore of Maryland. He grew up awkwardly precocious, graduating before he was eighteen from a college of which his father was president, and then had no idea of what to do. So he shuffled through a series of drab white-collar jobs before the day when, at twenty-two, sitting on a bench in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, he decided “out of the blue” to become a writer. He may have been influenced by the kind of work that the young Henry Mencken was doing for the nearby Baltimore Sun. Several years later he began working for the Sun himself, and went on to cover the coal wars in West Virginia.


He thought of writing a novel based on what he had seen, but soon gave up, convinced that he was not a novelist. Instead he began writing for Mencken’s American Mercury, satirical pieces notable for their use of the vernacular, reflecting Mencken’s ideas as well as the influence of Ring Lardner. Around this time, he went to New York and landed a job on the editorial page of the New York World. The page, then in its heyday, was run by Walter Lippmann, who hired Cain for his stylistic fluency. Cain’s job was to write the “human interest” editorials, intended to be breezy and not terribly profound. Cain found the work at first frustrating in its restrictions, but grew to enjoy the freedom provided him by the mask of corporate anonymity, and remained at it until the World sank in 1931.

Meanwhile he wrote his first play, published his first short story, and, in 1930, his first book. Entitled Our Government, it was a collection of his Mercury satirical pieces, and mostly striking for the quaintness of its colloquial style, which prompted Cain to refine his method. After the World, he worked for The New Yorker, as managing editor, but his solitary and gruff temper failed to cotton to the urbane repartee of the Algonquin crowd, and it came as a relief when his agent found him screenwriting work at Paramount. In Hollywood, where he was to spend the better part of the next two decades, Cain worked sporadically, laboring on a procession of scripts (beginning with The Ten Commandments) for nearly every major studio, and had accumulated only three actual credits at the end of his time there. Nevertheless, his imagination blossomed in California, and before long he found himself working on his first novel.

One of Cain’s earliest and closest friends out West was a prolific screen-writer named Vincent Lawrence. Lawrence had several theories, including the Lawrence 1, 2, and 3 Rules, by which he could diagnose the problems of any script. When someone pointed out that these were no more than Aristotle’s principles of beginning, middle, and end, Lawrence replied, “Who the hell was Aristotle, and who did he lick?” Lawrence also had a rather murky concept he called “the love rack,” apparently the dynamo that moved his scripts. Nobody was quite sure what it meant, but Cain seems to have thought it referred to some sort of collision of passion and pain, which is what the term certainly sounds like. In any case, it provided the motor for a story, and Cain had already been collecting characters and settings since arriving in California.

The result was The Postman Always Rings Twice, published in 1934. In 35,000 words it told the story of a drifter and the wife of the owner of a roadside café in rural Southern California, who conspire to murder her husband. They succeed, apparently foiling the courts, only to have their fraying attachment advance their doom. The book was financially and critically successful far beyond Cain’s or the publisher’s expectations. It is written as the drifter’s monologue, and most of its merits have to do with the way in which it is told. There is an artlessness and a single-minded intensity to the voice that sets its much-vaunted momentum quite apart from the average suspense mechanism. The story itself is drawn from a pool of conventions which the nineteenth-century novel had bequeathed to the cinema, leading Edmund Wilson to describe it, along with Serenade, as “a kind of Devil’s parody of the movies.”

Cain never tired of stating his dislike of motion pictures, even before he went to Hollywood. On the other hand, his journalistic career and his exposure to people like Lawrence had given him a certain sense of the public temper. What this resulted in was, unwittingly perhaps, his transferring the movies to the page, jettisoning literary mannerisms for those developed by the cinema. Everything is presented visually, including reflections and asides. The plot is tenaciously linear; the pace is rapid, with comic relief, for example, timed just so; above all, perhaps, the book can be consumed in the time it takes to watch a film. The famous opening (“They threw me off the hay truck about noon…”) is nothing more or less than an establishing medium shot. Where the devil enters the scheme is in the book’s toying with the public morals. Of course, both characters are duly punished in the end, in true Hollywood retributive fashion, but there is the business of smoldering sex, which delayed a movie version for twelve years. Interestingly enough, this happens to be the aspect of the novel that is absorbed in the most literary way: little is displayed, but much is suggested, by means of the telling (“…her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her”). Even so, the chapter divisions act as convenient fades.


By many of the standard definitions, Postman does not qualify as a novel. It reads rather like a prose poem hallucinated from a potboiler. Attempts to compare it to its contemporaries inevitably fail under analysis. Cain is commonly thought of as a crime writer, and mentioned in the same breath as Hammett and Chandler. To critics like Wilson, he was one of Hemingway’s many heirs. Cain spent a lifetime denying all this, and Hoopes takes pains to bear him out. His line in vernacular was already established before he could have encountered Hemingway, and he always claimed to have started a book apiece by Hammett and Chandler before abandoning them in boredom. In fact, apart from California and the odd murder, there is little to link him with the latter two at all. His books are far from being mysteries, their scale is smaller, their slang less jazzy and seemingly less deliberate. Later Cain did write one book (Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, 1942) that reads like a rather pale version of Hammett’s The Glass Key, the very one from which he obtained his twenty-page acquaintanceship.

Double Indemnity, written as a magazine serial, followed in 1936. After an initial rejection, Cain called it “a piece of tripe,” but it proved a huge success as well. Its plot can be synopsized in such a way as to sound nearly identical to Postman’s (man and woman conspire to knock off the woman’s husband; later their murderous passion turns each against the other). It does not seem like a repetition in the reading, mostly because of adroit use of character and setting. If anything, it is even more operatic in the way in which it delivers your next-door neighbor to the Fates:

I pitched my hat on the sofa. They’ve made a lot of that living room, especially those “blood-red drapes.” All I saw was a living room like every other living room in California, maybe a little more expensive than some, but nothing that any department store wouldn’t deliver on one truck, lay out in the morning, and have the credit O.K. ready the same afternoon…. The blood-red drapes were there, but they didn’t mean anything. All these Spanish houses have red velvet drapes that run on iron spears, and generally some red velvet wall tapestries to go with them.

Serenade, in 1937, marked a departure. Instead of being limited to a single incident, its preparation and its consequences, it is more complex, less linear, more ambiguous. It might well be Cain’s strongest work, but its gimmick seems ludicrous today. A down-and-out singer, languishing in Mexico, meets a local prostitute, and by and by they have an affair. This turns out to be crucial: it seems that while in Europe the singer had had relations with another man, which had killed his voice. The prostitute, naturally, understands, and her ministrations restore to his pipes that critical masculine essence, the “toro.” They smuggle themselves Stateside, and he becomes rich and famous. Later the catamite reappears and Juanita slays him. They are both wanted by the law, our singer knowing that he can never open his mouth again without condemning himself. The precipice beckons.

It seems that Cain tried his “toro” theory on a number of physicians, and that all of them gave him nihil obstat, by the odd medical ideas held then. The book did well, although a movie version was delayed even longer, until 1956, when it was adapted as an embarrassment featuring Mario Lanza, with alcohol filling in for homosexuality. The novel also gave him room to discourse on opera, a lifelong obsession, and he felt considerable pride in having at last propounded ideas in a work of fiction, although it may be that his views on Rossini have aged as badly as those on sexual behavior.

Mildred Pierce, in 1941, broke yet more ground. It was the first of three to be written in the third person and had as its main character a woman, a widow who devotes her life to her children, and gradually finds that her precious daughter is an amoral ingrate who is squandering her money and sleeping with her new husband. It stands a little apart in Cain’s corpus, more in the line of the melodramas of its day, but is generally admirable, and made his name in the movies. Afterward, Cain’s writing went into decline.

Past All Dishonor, in 1946, sold more than any of his books, but time has not been mind to it. A miner in nineteenth-century Nevada is obsessed with rescuing a “fallen” woman’s reputation, but is stymied by Hollywood convention. The dialogue is painfully anachronistic, the story less believable than anything he had previously written, and, worse, its sales figures convinced Cain of the importance of research, an otherwise laudable pursuit that proved an element in his undoing. For the next thirty years he would write cardboard novels that relied on a succession of formulas. The apparently fervent reception his theories had received after Serenade convinced Cain that he was destined to be a novelist of ideas, and so one screwball hypothesis after another was paraded forth. In his last novel, The Institute, published in 1976, the year before his death, a character mouths his belief that the dedication to “W.H.” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets refers to “Will Himself,” thus establishing him as a teenaged narcissist.

Research likewise burdens his later works with very heavy luggage, singly or in combination with other nuisances. Editorial experience had provided Cain with ideas on drawing the interest of the public, but as the years went by his intuitions turned into stock motifs. One of these was food, so that all his novels have at least one food scene, and by The Magician’s Wife (1965) this has evolved into a full-scale depiction of the last word in the meat-packing industry, which leaks into the rest of the story and leaves a bad smell. Throughout Cain’s oeuvre, in fact, there is an uncontained enthusiasm for enterprise that at its worst suggests some sort of 4H Club activity. When enterprise, in his early books, means plotting a murder, the enthusiasm has a properly chilling effect. Sometimes it aids in realizing character, as in Mildred Pierce, where it informs the depiction of the restaurant chain Mildred is establishing for the sake of her children. By the later novels, though, it has come to exist for its own sake, and when characters are throwing their all into building drastic weight-loss campaigns or national biographical institutes, the effect is unintentionally comic.

Cain wrote one more interesting book before being paralyzed by boosterism and crank theories. The Moth, in 1948, was dismissed by the critics, has never been reprinted, and is even slighted by Hoopes. It is Cain’s longest book, and almost certainly his most self-consciously literary work. A true picaresque novel, where Postman is something like the picaro’s last encounter, it seems as if it could be Cain’s dream autobiography. The Moth opens with the main character living what, minor fantasies aside, is something very much like Cain’s early life in Maryland, with strong emphasis on his singing career. Then he is forced out of town and on the road at twenty-two. It seems that his infatuation with a twelve-year-old girl has caused a scandal, although the affair is unconsummated. (Cain had loved a young girl, too, but in secret.) The ensuing action rolls against a panorama of America in the 1930s with the scale of a WPA mural.

On the surface, everything would seem to be wrong: its plot is a stew of undigested movie matter (from Angels with Dirty Faces to Boom Town to The Fountainhead, or something like that), with a whopper of a Hollywood coincidence for an ending (he meets her again, grown up), the characters airlifted directly from the most grizzled melodramas, including the beautiful but elusive mother and the good but errant father whose brogue is rendered literally on the page, and chief among its literary payoffs is the corniest of leitmotifs (the big luna moth, killed by a bully on page one, which is “pale, blue-green, all-filled-with light”).

On the other hand, The Moth is a rare occasion when Cain trusts instinct over calculation, releasing a poetic rhythm that operates by accumulation and effectively draws the reader in. Credibility is not even an issue, because the sheer weight of wish-fulfillment makes it as satisfying as the most unbelievable Hollywood concoction could sometimes be. In this case it is “The James M. Cain Story,” and not much less pertinent to his real life than, say, Night and Day was to Cole Porter’s. Rather, it is the autobiography of his acquired voice, where weaknesses become strengths, and even self-doubt can be an occasion for swaggering:

Through that door in a minute somebody would come to pick me out of the line. I don’t know if ever in my life my head worked faster than it did then. I went over it in a flash, what I had looked like in Las Vegas four years ago, when I was hard, weatherbeaten, and thin, and what I looked like now, with soft, hundred-fifty-dollar tweeds on, a dark coat of tan, thirty pounds more weight, and a little Hollywood mustache I had sprouted. And I caught it with my eye, what a bum looked like, from the set of these faces the turnkey had brought in, that hadn’t smiled in a month of Sundays, that had a dull heavy film on their eyes, and were covered with fuzz and grease and dirt. I knew I still had a chance, but something kept telling me—smile, smile, smile! Don’t look like these bums! Don’t be part of line-up at all! Keep your head up, give out with it so anybody can see you, don’t turn away like these guys are going to do, and SMILE! Smile so it COULDN’T BE YOU!

An estranged, gnarled, frustrated, and seemingly unexamined personality is what emerges from Roy Hoopes’s biography, and Cain’s hand in the task only serves to confirm the impression. He had firm ideas on biography, as demonstrated by an unhealthy interest in Who’s Who and by The Institute, a fantasy of an academic womb devoted to Great Lives. He believed that “any autobiography must be susceptible to the subtitle, Or, Up From Slavery,” and so never wrote one. Instead he devoted his last days to a series of memoirs, left unfinished, blocks of which appear throughout Hoopes’s book and which are credited only in the appendix. Such ghostly quotation accounts not only for questionable conceits, like the passages in dialogue, but also for a certain tone, familiarly matter-of-fact. Cain’s hand is evident in the form, too, since he admonished Hoopes not to write a critical biography (and coming from him, this sounds like a defensive strategy). The book has the ironic effect of being closer to the voice of the subject beyond the grave than most biographies, yet leaving us little the wiser about the voice’s source. This is not the fault of Hoopes, who is a conscientious and uncommonly self-effacing biographer, as well as an adept writer. Neither is he interested in canonizing his subject, but the exposition of Cain’s various warts is no more revealing than anything else. The result of Cain’s intervention in his biography is that his life is described in thorough and sometimes niggling detail, while the subject himself maintains his distance. Cain seems to have been a man who protectively stuck close to surfaces, and so the surface is what can most be determined from his life.

This Issue

February 3, 1983