“Roads and Wilderness: Two Novels by James M. Cain” (by Zoë Z. Dean)

Zoë Z. Dean (a pseudonym for Kentucky writer Lauren James) debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in November 2014 with the story “Getaway Girl”—for which she has just won the Mystery Writers of America’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best first short story by an American author. The award will be presented at the Edgar Allan Poe Awards banquet in New York City, on April 29th. A lifelong mystery fan, the author once tried to find work in a private investigator’s office. Her Fish Award-winning story has distinct noir aspects. In this post, she talks about one of the writers from that tradition who had an early influence on her. A spoiler alert is hardly necessary in discussion of such classic works of fiction, but we’ll give it anyway: Endings are discussed in the following piece.—Janet Hutchings

I first read The Postman Always Rings Twice when I was in high school, and it looked as unprepossessing as a book possibly could: It was a library copy, dog-eared and with a broken spine, and barely a hundred pages long. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was slim the way an icepick is slim: it’s all in what you do with it. The specifics of the plot barely registered with me on that first reading, simply because I was so distracted by the fug of sex, murder, and fate.

It has that same unchecked, down-and-dirty intensity for me as an adult. Part of this stems from Cain’s strange outsider status in literature: Chandler and Hammett have been integrated into the fold of the familiar, but Cain, with his criminal heroes and hardboiled housewives, stands outside of it. “Rip me like you did that night,” in Postman, is one of those lines that eludes familiarity, no matter how many times you’ve read it. There are terrific Cain films, but the stories themselves still contain those hard little glints of the unexpected, and, more importantly, they still bite. They won’t be herded, although for the purposes of this post I’ll gamely don some thick gloves and try.

Part of what makes Cain compelling to me is his almost operatic sense of fatalism. It’s embedded in the title of The Postman Always Rings Twice and it runs throughout the book. “Runs” is the right word, because what Cain returns to again and again is the idea of the road that leads its travelers inexorably—and hopelessly—onwards to their one sure destination. Cora thinks that by killing her husband, she and Frank are getting off a road that “don’t lead anywhere but to the hash house” of unskilled labor and no money; instead, they find themselves on the road to death, helpfully marked by the blatantly unlucky signpost of a cat fooling around near a ladder. When their first attempt goes wrong, they console themselves with a different road, one they could travel endlessly, “just a couple of tramps,” but it’s inevitable—that title again—that of course they’ll come back to the crime and, in fact, the road.

Frank and Cora, despite everything, have their virtues, and you can sense throughout that Cain knows it, that he appreciates their ability to know the worst in each other and to forgive it. On the one hand, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a sordid little tale of adultery and murder where the very cleverness of the plotting ultimately does itself in; on the other hand, it’s a tragedy of doomed lovers, awful but recognizable in their passion and selfishness. If the ending of the story was going to happen the moment they lay in bed together and plotted murder, the brief seaside lull before it, in which they dream of a new life, is a gift Cain gives them: the temporary avoidance of the end of the road.

Fate is less kind to Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger in the meaner-but-more-refined Double Indemnity, but there’s less to be kind about: They’re not in love and they don’t need the money. Their love scenes aren’t visceral connections but encroaches—“I was trembling like a leaf. She gave it a cold stare”—and mundane talk about whether or not he’s made the pleats in her blouse uneven. Walter isn’t as honest as Frank—he’s confessing to his boss, after all, not to a priest—but even he has to admit that he commits murder largely for the thrill of testing his wits against the system: “And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet.”

“Straight down the line,” he and Phyllis repeatedly promise each other. Back-to-back with Postman, you already know what this means.

But Cain stretches his muscles in Double Indemnity. He makes the characters colder and less sympathetic, and he makes their fate in some sense more deserved—all of this arguably a simplification of the panting complexities of Postman—but it’s what he does with that fate that is strangest, and another reason why his work is, despite acclaim and the decades past its publication, not “normal.”

In the (excellent) film version of Double Indemnity, Chandler’s screenplay sensibly enough simplifies a particular detail of Cain’s text: Lola, Phyllis’s stepdaughter, sees Phyllis trying out mourning clothes before her husband’s murder, a fact that would surely be suggestive to the insurance company eager to prove her culpability. It makes sense and has the ring of the kind of real-world slip-up that would lead to an arrest. In the book, though, Phyllis isn’t just trying on mourning and playing at grief, she’s also playing at death, “with some kind of foolish red silk thing on her, that looked like a shroud or something, with her face all smeared up with white powder and red lipstick, with a dagger in her hand.” She’s not a normal femme fatale, hiding evil inside silk, she’s hiding a very deep and poisonous insanity inside a calm, icy veneer. Her motives are suddenly questionable, even further divorced from the comprehensible: It’s not about freedom or even greed. It’s about her transformation into a supernatural embodiment of death.

I can’t stress this enough: This is strange. It isn’t typical of crime fiction, now or ever, to subsume its concerns of death and fate into this level of literalized weirdness, and it’s especially unusual for noir. Femme fatales are “supposed” to banter, dress well, and kill out of selfishness; they’re not supposed to choose dread, costumes, and cultic mystery.

In a way, Cain was almost writing revisionist noir even as he was helping to invent the genre and establish its canon. Double Indemnity seems to argue that all the traditional noir motives of greed and lust don’t matter. It deliberately evokes Postman throughout, both in its ostensible framework and in its language of roads, but as a companion work, it’s curiously inverted. These aren’t characters on a road they can never get off, however much they want to; they’re characters who, in some crucial sense, willfully choose the dead end, and even celebrate it.

This is what I mean about how difficult Cain is to contain or to count on: He writes one novel and then, with almost exactly the same plot, he writes its opposite. I’ve been quoting from the Everyman’s Library edition of his works, and next after Double Indemnity is Mildred Pierce, a crime novel with no real crime, about the construction of a chicken-and-waffle restaurant, a passionately unbalanced mother-daughter relationship, and the Depression. At the very least, you can’t accuse the man of having been in a rut.

Fame tends to reward consistency, and Cain was never consistent, but it’s in his skewed, close-in, constantly-shifting take on the darkness of the human heart that we perhaps come closest to understanding the bewildering—and sometimes beguiling—variety of that darkness. That quality his work has of having no safe ground to stand on strikes me as essential to noir, and these two books, taken together, go some way of showing why.

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8 Responses to “Roads and Wilderness: Two Novels by James M. Cain” (by Zoë Z. Dean)

  1. macphilms says:

    Lovely insightful piece about one of the great crime writers. I have loved Cain’s work since junior high — a good time to get warped by it. I would rate SERENADE with the two discussed here, and PAST ALL DISHONOR and THE BUTTERFLY are near top Cain, too. His later work is uneven but often interesting and surprising. I learned so much from him, particularly his dialogue — the “ragged right margin” he extolled.

  2. Zoë Z. Dean says:

    Thanks, and thanks even more for the recommendations on Cain’s later work: SERENADE is definitely next on my list.

  3. Lou manfredo says:

    I’ve been meaning to read Cain for many years and your terrific post was just the gentle push I needed. Thanks!

  4. Zoë Z. Dean says:

    That’s great! I hope you like it!

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  6. Harley Mazuk says:

    Wonderful writing about James M. Cain. Thank you. It helped me with a plot point I’ve been struggling over. I’m a big fan of Cain’s too, and can back up macfilms about Serenade, and the Butterfly

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