When people talk about James M. Cain these days, it tends to be in reverential tones – he’s earned a spot as one of the ‘big three,’ the giants of hardboiled crime fiction whose works are considered classics (the other two being Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler). Cain’s books have been taught in universities – even Harvard. People write dissertations about them.
But back when Cain started publishing his lean, tough novels in the 1930s and 40s – and even on into the 50s and 60s – he was seen very differently: as a dabbler in sin and scandal, a purveyor of the lurid and the low. The Saturday Review of Literature famously said: “No one has ever stopped reading in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books,” a line that’s been quoted on several generations of Cain paperbacks, but it was a backhanded compliment, acknowledging his books’ explosive popularity with readers more than their quality...
Cain’s books also sold millions of copies and were translated into eighteen or nineteen languages. All of which just goes to show how little critics’ opinions count for if you’ve got readers in the palm of your hand (which, god knows, Cain did), and if your books are actually good (which, god knows, Cain’s are).
But it would be a mistake to completely ignore the reception Cain got in his heyday, because it tells you something about what it was Cain was doing. The fact is that Cain was a scandalous, shocking writer – even a dangerous one, insofar as any novelist can be called dangerous. He shook up the social order of his day, delighting in pricking over-inflated balloons and watching them go pop. He brought matters into popular fiction that weren’t the subject of polite conversation back then (some still aren’t even now) – adultery, incest, depravity of all stripes, sexuality of all flavours. He had an underage temptress stealing her mother’s lover a decade before Lolita. He had murders so brutal, so visceral, that even reading them today your gut twists. His books were banned. Is there any wonder that he attracted readers by the carload, or that they read his books breathlessly to the last page?
But unlike a mere sensationalist, Cain put this shocking material to work in the service of larger aims: showing us life as it is lived, language as it is spoken; the dreams and hungers and despairs of ordinary people in dire situations; the impact on the human soul of crisis and the ability of the human animal to give up its humanity under duress. Cain’s characters sweat, and have reason to. And when you read about them, he makes you sweat alongside them. You want to know what it feels like to be trapped in a loveless marriage, yearning hopelessly for something better and grabbing desperately at a way out even if it’s cruel and repellent and doomed? Read The Postman Always Rings Twice. If you feel you need a shower afterwards, that’s to its credit, not a criticism.
Cain did spend rather a lot of his time in the gutter and dealing with gutter matters, it’s true, but his books are great not in spite of this but because of it. As a consequence, unlike the work of many contemporaries that have since been forgotten, Cain’s books drew a powerful response, and continue to draw one. From ordinary readers, from critics, from other writers, from everyone who encounters them. In Cain’s day, that reaction was sometimes revulsion, abhorrence – but make no mistake, that’s a reaction, and a worthwhile one.
At the end of Albert Camus’ masterpiece, L’Étranger – a novel Camus said was inspired by Cain’s work – Meursault goes to his execution hoping that “there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration”. Execration! Cain knew his share. But the greater punishment by far for an author is for his work to inspire indifference. And no one ever accused Cain of that.
Charles Ardai is the editor of James M Cain's 'lost' novel The Cocktail Waitress, published by Titan on 21st September.