What is it like, inside a James M Cain? It is a strange.
I’m talking from limited experience – the only other Cain I’ve read is Serenade – so someone correct me if I err or overstep the mark.
Inside a James M Cain it is always Los Angeles. It is always the 30s. & you can trust no-one, & you know this, because it is always hard boiled. HARD! BOILED!
My detractors will say: “Of course it’s hard boiled, it’s crime fiction.”
& OK I acknowledge this. In such stories you have hard boiled detectives uneasily working alongside the hard boiled cops while sleeping with hard boiled society dames. The mechanics are hard boiled, the cigarette girls are hard boiled. The sports journalists are particularly hard boiled. OK. Yes. It's noiry, noiry crime.
In a James M Cain the insurance agents are hard boiled. Their secretaries too. The teenage girls are hard boiled, & their boyfriends who are studying to be industrial chemists are hard boiled. Hell, in Serenade the opera singers were MEGA hard boiled, and don’t even ask about the orchestra conductors.
In a James M Cain babies sit in their cots, look up at their mothers, and think:
I was through with her. I needed out – out as in out, out as in now. But any way I figured it, she had the milk. Nothing was going to change that. And then there was the problem of the bars, of not having learnt to walk. Yeah I’d been fixed, and good.
Everyone knows the story – an insurance agent falls for a rich housewife, & together they plot to murder the husband, make it look like an accident, & collect on the life insurance. It's a well-worn story, except not so much when Cain wrote it. Cain is one of the guys who got the ball rolling on this kind of book. & there are a lot of beautiful things going on in Double Indemnity. The language and narration – hard boiled though it may be – is fantastic. Cain doesn't waste time describing anything he doesn't need to, or telling us anything we already know. His occasional passages of description, when they do come, are clipped to the point of awesomeness:
Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts
That's the sexy dame. Or try this:
There's nothing so dark as a railroad track in the middle of the night.
That's the crime scene. It's just awesome. It's inspirational.
Because of this the story moves at incredible speed; the book is only 140 pages long, but has the complexity of something much longer. The famous (& good) Billy Wilder film covers, to my memory, something like 60% of the plot of the book.
One major difference from book to screen is the housewife, the be-all & end-all of femme fatales, the incredibly named Phyllis Nirdlinger.
“...But there's something in me, I don't know what. Maybe I'm crazy. But there's something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I'm so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness...”
In the film adaptation, co-written by Raymond Chandler, you get a lot about how the husband's a drunk & he's awful to her, & he won't give her a divorce. You get a lot of dancing around the subject of murder before our “hero” Walter decides to commit. In Cain's original, Walter doesn't need much talking around. Under Phyllis' pajamas she has a shape to set a man nuts, & as for Phyllis herself, she's a one-woman Death cult. I can see why Wilder & Chandler made Walter more of a "normal guy" & cut the macabre stuff out of the script – who knows how it would have played with an audience – but to me Cain's version rings true. "Normal guys" are capable of all kinds of shit. A cold blooded femme who's probably killed before, & is prepared to kill again, isn't just heartless. She's motherfucking crazy! It makes her much more dangerous, & much more interesting.
& Jesus Christ you should see how all the Death stuff plays out by the end of the book.
After two books – Serenade was brilliant too, by the way – I'm converted to Cain. I'd never read crime fiction until about two years ago, when a friend (hi Steve) suggested that as a sometime screenwriter I might benefit from the stark, pared-down plots. I'm not much for detectives & murder mysteries, but novels like this, where you're right in with the action & watching the whole sordid mess play out, are a hell of a lot of fun. It's a shadow-version of the world, where anyone's capable of anything, a much bleaker take on human nature than you'll find in most other writing.
GOOD? Yes. Very good. It'll take you two hours to read, you'll most likely love it.
FILE UNDER: crime, the Evil that Men Do, Will They Get Away With It, macabre Death worship, insurance is really interesting when you think about it.
WOULD GO WELL WITH: The Getaway by Jim Thomson. It'd be hard to say which writer has a more pessimistic take on humanity, & both books have much weirder endings than their corresponding films.
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