James M. Cain exhibits at Pratt recalls his impact on American literature and culture


James M. Cain wrote two great novels, a few good ones, several mediocre ones and a couple that have, for good reason, sunk deep into the abyss of American fiction. His writing was uneven, obviously; the man who wrote the seminal and glorious first novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" also was given to repeating cliched story lines and themes in his later work, chiefly "Rainbow's End" and "The Magician's Wife." Although he continued to write diligently, for the last three decades of his life, until his death at age 85 in University Park on Oct. 25, 1977, he wrote little that was distinguished.

In one sense, it's a respectable yet hardly remarkable literary output for this college president's son and longtime resident of Maryland (save for much of the 1930s and '40s, when he was in California). Cain, a successful newspaper and magazine journalist before moving on to fiction, became a wildly popular novelist who gained extravagant critical praise as well (with a few noteworthy dissenters who felt he was a "trash novelist"). But really, there have been many writers with a track record that reads a few successes, some duds and the rest falling somewhere in the middle.

Still, in another sense, he became much more. James M. Cain was one of those rare artists whose best work was not only remembered, but also imitated and reworked constantly by others throughout the years.

On the 100th anniversary of Cain's birth (he was born in Annapolis on July 1, 1892), his contribution to American literature and culture is emphasized in an exhibition, "Poet of the Tabloid Murders," on display until Oct. 31 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. As exhibitions go, it's a modest one: one of his old Underwood typewriters, a few photographs and letters, some posters and first printings of his most popular novels ("Postman," "Double Indemnity," "Serenade" and "Mildred Pierce" being his best). Cain, who wrote simple and unvarnished prose that reflected his days as a newspaperman with The Sun in the early 1920s, probably would have approved of this low-key approach.

Powerful writing

Unlike an exhibition about, say, a painter or sculptor, there's understandably little on display that shows the viewer the full power of Cain's words -- that Cain was, as Tom Wolfe once noted, "in a class with [Raymond] Chandler when it comes to recreating the atmosphere of Stucco Rococo, Lay-Away Plan, and Low-Rent California." You can attend a Monet exhibition and get a strong sense of his talents as a painter; for Cain, it's necessary to go to his books. There you get writing at its most powerful, the best examples of what writing teachers always preach: Show rather than tell.

You start at the beginning -- literally, with the first sentence of his monstrous first novel, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," which came out in 1934, when he was 42:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

What an extraordinary first line! - an extraordinary first paragraph. In the space of six sentences we learn that our protagonist, Frank Chambers, is a transient, a wise-guy ne'er-do-well who lives for the moment (hitching a ride on a truck after a prolonged debauchery in Tiajuana). It's no surprise when we learn he's up to no good; in fact, he seems destined to hook up with the treacherous Cora. Their initial encounter, for Cain, is love at first sight:

Except for the shape, she really wasn't any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Three things stand out in "Postman." First, it is surprisingly short ' 117 pages in the 1989 Vintage Crime paperback that I possess. Second, it keeps the pace going at an unrelenting speed; "Postman" and his other masterpiece, "Double Indemnity," are among the rare books that swallow the reader up on the first page, and the fascination continues to the final page. Finally, and most extraordinary, the reader simply cannot help but be drawn to the often repellent characters of Frank and Cora. This from Mr. Wolfe: "In book after book Cain puts you inside the skin of one utterly egocentric heel after another, losers who will stop at nothing - and makes you care about them. Sympathy runs along shank to flank with the horror and disgust."

Impact on novels and movies

The legacy of James M. Cain is apparent in two of America's most original contributions to 20th century culture - the hard-boiled crime novel and film noir. Without Cain, it could be argued, could we have had Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford and many other novelists whose protagonists are lowlifes and the dispossessed, framed only by their own desires and drives and weaknesses? Remember, too, that Albert Camus is said to have remarked that Cain's work influenced his writing of "The Stranger," the classic of French Existentialism. And what would have film noir of the late 1940s and 1950s been like without the influence of "Postman" and "Double Indemnity" - which themselves were made into memorable movies? Could we have had such a movie as Lawrence Kasdan's 1981 film "Body Heat," with the driving forces of passion and greed and double-dealing between lovers William Hurt and Kathleen Turner? A few weeks ago, I picked up "Rum Punch," the 30th and lates book by the great crime novelist Elmore Leonard. Though Mr. Leonard is no clone of Cain - he's less moralistic and more prone to accept human foibles - he does reflect the latter's fascination with the seamier sorts. In "Rum Punch," it's a gun-running homeboy from Detroit named Ordell Robbie whom Mr. Leonard focuses on. Like Cain, Mr. Leonard generally would rather write about the perps than the police, if for no other reason than the bad guys are more compelling. As Cain himself observed in a Paris Review interview shortly before his death: "You can't end a story with the cops getting the killer. I don't think the law is a very interesting nemesis."

He had made the same point 35 years before in an essay: Murder "had always been written from the least interesting angle, which was whether the police would catch the murderer." Cain was absolutely right. Too often a crime novel that centers on the apprehension of the criminal deteriorates into little more than an intellectual exercise, thus distancing the reader from the horror of the situation. When readers are forced to live among those who commit the crime, and get into their skin, they cannot escape the duplicity, the venality.

Cain liked to say that he was not a mystery writer, a common stance during the 1930s and '40s, when to be considered one was like being placed on the junior varsity of writers (Chandler had the same attitude). He was, after all, a cultured man, a lover pTC of opera, and many of his later books were not "crime novels" in the classic sense. "That was something he always claimed - that he was more than a mystery writer," says Roy Hoopes, the Bethesda writer whose biography of Cain was published in 1982. "He definitely was very proud of his mysteries, and that they had endured. But he felt that was not all that he wrote."

Operatic themes

The grand operatic themes of passion and tragedy can be found throughout Cain's work, and in that sense we can see that he really was looking for more than writing a whodunit. He elaborated on this point in 1942: ". . . they would commit the perfect murder. It wouldn't go, of course, quite as they planned it. But in the end they would get away with it, and then what? They would find, I said, that the earth is not big enough for two persons who share such a dreadful secret, and eventually turn on each other. . . . The whole thing corresponded to a definition of tragedy I found later in some of my father's writings: that it was the force of circumstances driving the protagonist to the commission of the dreadful act." (By contrast, Mr. Leonard's lowlifes commit crimes simply because they like to, and get caught not because of some universal force but because they are screw-ups).

Edmund Wilson, the great American literary critic, summed it up another way in his classic essay on hard-boiled writers, "The Boys in the Back Room," in which he coined the term "poet of the tabloid murders." The fate of a Cain protagonist, Wilson wrote, "is thus forecast from the beginning; but in the meantime he has fabulous adventures - samples, as it were, from 'A Thousand and One Nights' of the screwy Pacific Coast: you have jungle lust in roadside lunchrooms, family motor-trips that end in murder, careers catastrophically broken by the vagaries of bisexual personality, the fracas created by a Mexican Indian introduced among the phonies of Hollywood."

In all, it's not such a bad way to be remembered.

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