Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
“This was going to be such a lousy murder it wouldn’t even be a murder. It was going to be just a regular road accident, with guys drunk, and booze in the car, and all the rest.”
Only James M. Cain (1892 – 1977), the master of American noir, could write a line like that, from his 1934 classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice – and the movies also rang twice with this particular opus, first in 1946 with Lana turner, then a 1981 re-make with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. “I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called,” Cain wrote later, explaining his style in a preface to his 1936 novel, Double Indemnity. “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 this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”
Note the language, “I shall attain,” rather than the more common, “I will attain.” In fact, Cain, like other writers taking the voice of the common man, was exceptionally well educated, a Professor of Journalism at St. John’s College, Annapolis, and briefly on the staff of The New Yorker magazine. He never quite got the recognition of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, the most famous specimens of the hard-boiled school, but for my money, he was the best of the lot – in his low-class way, one of the great writers of the 20th century.
Cain captured something unique in the landscape and character of the United States, the gritty restlessness that that lies at the bottom of the American Dream. His crime novels – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity – have always received the most attention from those who know his work, but my personal favorite is his 1941 character study of an ambitious woman, Mildred Pierce. (And Hollywood rang thrice in this instance; there is a 1945 black and white version of the story for which Joan Crawford won an Oscar.)
Mildred Pierce has great legs and a tough personality, and she is determined to make her way in life, for herself and her daughter, after her louse of a husband leaves her for another woman. The setting is Los Angeles of the 1930s, the Great Depression, not an easy time, but Mildred uses all her talents to survive. Everyone likes her pies, so with her usual energy she turns pie-baking into a successful business, eventually opening up a restaurant. The years pass and soon Mildred would be doing well except for two great flaws in her character: an attraction to shiftless men, and a desire to spare her spoiled daughter, Veda, the hardships she herself has endured. In the end, the men and Veda will destroy all that she has built. A tragic tale . . . yet we sense that Mildred has a uniquely American sort of optimism and will get on her feet again.
Mildred Pierce is one of the great character studies of American fiction, the rise and fall of a complicated single woman in pre-World War Two Los Angeles. The French are huge fans of James M. Cain – it is said that The Postman Always Rings Twice inspired Albert Camus to write his famous existential novel, The Stranger – but otherwise, I am always surprised how many people don’t know of him today. Fortunately, his books are still in print, republished by Random House in their attractive Vintage Books crime series. I recommend Mildred Pierce, and all of James M. Cain, particularly to Generation X-ers – you intense students, urban hipsters, devotees of Indie films and the ironic land of noir. This is a voice that will speak to you.