Essay

Noir Master James M. Cain

One of the world's greatest mystery writers

james m cain

Today’s Mystery Thursday salutes one of the world’s greatest mystery writers, James M. Cain. Considered one of the most important authors of American crime fiction, Cain was the genius behind such classics as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Mildred Pierce (1941), and Double Indemnity (1943). MysteriousPress.com and Open Road Media are thrilled to re-introduce twelve formerly out-of-print Cain titles, now as ebooks.

Cain’s style is most often compared to that of hard-boiled writers Raymond Chandler, Horace McCoy, and Dashiell Hammett. These authors established a new genre of crime literature in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, focusing on tough, urban, wisecracking PIs and anti-heroes who get tangled up in lust and violence. Readers loved the novels’ colorful slang and gritty metaphors. For instance, in the opening scene of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain’s narrator spots his femme fatale and thinks, “her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.”

Like McCoy, Cain told his stories from the perpetrator’s point of view. His protagonists were people desperately trying to elevate their quality of life. Always in trouble, they strived for love, money, and answers, but more often than not, they resorted to murder as a way out. He portrayed his characters—lowlifes, criminals, the easily manipulated—with such depth, complexity, and humanity, that readers felt a kinship and connection with them.

Among Cain’s notable later novels is The Moth (1948), a story about a young singer trying to succeed during the Great Depression. Cain drew on his own experiences to create his hero, setting the novel in Maryland, where he lived for most of his life. The son of an opera singer, Cain had aspired to be a singer himself, but his hopes were dashed when his mother told him his voice wasn’t good enough.

In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain writes:

“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to his heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”

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