Authors: James M. Cain

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American journalist and novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934

Double Indemnity, 1936

Serenade, 1937

The Embezzler, 1940

Mildred Pierce, 1941

Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, 1942

Past All Dishonor, 1946

The Butterfly, 1947

Sinful Woman, 1947

The Moth, 1948

Jealous Woman, 1950

The Root of His Evil, 1951 (as Shameless, 1979)

Galatea, 1953

Mignon, 1963

The Magician’s Wife, 1965

Rainbow’s End, 1975

The Institute, 1976

Cloud Nine, 1984

The Enchanted Isle, 1985

Short Fiction:

The Baby in the Icebox, and Other Short Fiction, 1981 (Roy Hoopes, editor)

Career in C Major, and Other Fiction, 1986 (Hoopes, editor)

Drama:

Crashing the Gates, pr. 1926

Trial by Jury, pb. 1928 (dialogue)

Theological Interlude, pb. 1928 (dialogue)

Will of the People, pb. 1929 (dialogue)

Citizenship, pb. 1929 (dialogue)

Don’t Monkey with Uncle Same, pb. 1933 (dialogue)

The Postman Always Rings Twice, pr. 1936 (adaptation of his novel)

7-11, pr. 1938

Screenplays:

Algiers, 1938

Stand Up and Fight, 1938

Gypsy Wildcat, 1944

Nonfiction:

Our Government, 1930

Sixty Years of Journalism, 1986

Miscellaneous:

The James M. Cain Cookbook: Guide to Home Singing, Physical Fitness, and Animals (Especially Cats), 1988 (essays and stories)

Biography

James Mallahan Cain is a master of the genre of hard-boiled or tough guy novels that flourished during the 1930’s. The materials of his fiction are basic human drives: the pursuit of sex, money, and violence. Typical Cain characters are educated roughnecks and ruthless women. As lovers, they embark on high adventure and end up on what Cain calls “the love-rack.” For them, the wish that comes true proves a terrifying thing; when they get away with murder–the victim being, usually, the woman’s husband–and collect the insurance money, they turn on each other. The sex usually has a fake religious aura and often borders on the abnormal. Cain depicts the criminal behavior of men and women who are not all that remote from the average American. He is also deft at creating a sense of place, as in the novels he set in Glendale, California.{$I[AN]9810000262}{$I[A]Cain, James M.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Cain, James M.}{$I[tim]1892;Cain, James M.}

Critics have lauded Cain for his technique, which is most evident in his extraordinary sense of timing. His best novels are brief, and they are narrated by men who seem disinclined to embellish the telling. Showing interest not in past action but only in the immediacy of the present as it careens into the future, Cain lets a story, as he said, “secrete its own adrenalin” and “needles it at the least hint of a letdown.” His best work approaches what has been called the pure novel–the novel that, like nonobjective painting, is its own subject.

Cain’s parents, both Irish, were born in New Haven, Connecticut. His father taught at St. John’s College, Annapolis, and was president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. His mother, Rose Mallahan, was a professional singer. James Mallahan Cain was born in Annapolis in 1892. Although baptized a Catholic, he left the Church when he was thirteen. In 1910, he graduated “without distinction” from Washington College, where, to his father’s dismay, he refused to participate in extracurricular activities; he received an M.A. in 1917 from The Johns Hopkins University. For a time, he studied singing with great concentration but gave it up after he was told that his voice was not good enough for a successful career.

After losing a number of jobs for reason, he later claimed, of incompetence, Cain became a reporter in 1917 for the Baltimore American, where he met H. L. Mencken. In 1918, at a time when he was working on the Baltimore Sun, he enlisted in the Army and served in France, where he edited The Lorraine Cross, one of the most successful weeklies of the American Expeditionary Forces. From 1919 to 1923, he worked for the Baltimore Sun again, and in 1923 he also taught journalism at St. John’s College. He wrote editorials under Walter Lippman for the New York World from 1924 until he went to Hollywood; his weekly political dialogues were collected in his controversial book Our Government.

While Mencken was editor of The American Mercury, Cain contributed a number of plays, stories, and articles to the publication, most of which were political in nature. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, he contributed rather tough-styled articles on labor strife and other aspects of the American scene to the leading periodicals. After the enormous success of his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was banned in Canada and made into a play in 1937 and a film in 1946, Cain gave up journalism entirely. As a Hollywood scriptwriter in the 1930’s and 1940’s, he learned a great deal about cinematic technique; though he did not prove adept as a screenwriter, his own novels–including Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity(adapted by Raymond Chandler)–became successful films. A planner, like many of the heroes he created, he organized the American Authors’ Authority in 1946 to get justice for writers.

After Cain’s death in 1977, at the age of eighty-five, his fiction enjoyed a new surge in popularity. The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Butterfly were remade as films in 1981, and in 1982 Stephen Paulus wrote the music for an operatic production of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The 1980’s also brought the posthumous publication of two additional novels, Cloud Nine and The Enchanted Isle–and two nonfiction works, a collection of his newspaper work, Sixty Years of Journalism, and The James M. Cain Cookbook, a collection of essays and stories.

Cain’s reputation ultimately rests on the success of his best novels, and despite his own repeated denial that he belonged to “no school, hard-boiled or otherwise,” Cain will be remembered as a writer who both defined and epitomized a technique that was a fitting fictional response to an era in which longstanding values and ideals were called radically into question.

Cain’s approach has been praised by writers as diverse as Ross Macdonald, Tom Wolfe, Stephen King, John MacDonald, Wyndam Lewis, and Albert Camus, who acknowledged modeling L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946) after The Postman Always Rings Twice. Like so many writers before him, Cain returned repeatedly to the American dream in its most commercial, venal, and destructive manifestations. In his works, that dream is by turns elusive and approachable but always illicit and terrifying and always a force for desperate, dramatic change. It is because his writings reflect universal human feelings of isolation and loss that he continues to be recognized.

BibliographyCain, James M. “An Interview with James M. Cain.” Interview by John Carr. Armchair Detective 16, no. 1 (1973): 4-21. Cain reveals interesting highlights of his career as a reporter and explains the influence of Vincent Sergeant Lawrence, a journalist and screenwriter, on his work. Cain’s comments on his three major novels are particularly informative. Includes an annotated list of people important in Cain’s life and a bibliography of Cain’s writings.Fine, Richard. James M. Cain and the American Authors’ Authority. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992. A solid study of Cain’s attempt to create an American Authors’ Authority in the mid-1940’s. The AAA would have been a national writers’ organization with wide-ranging powers to protect its members’ property rights. Fine argues that the failure of the AAA contributed to the economic marginalization of American writers.Forter, Gregory. “Double Cain.” Novel 29 (Spring, 1996): 277-298. Argues that the primitive sense of smell is a powerful force in Cain’s fiction; claims that for Cain smell overcomes resistance and enslaves one to the other.Haining, Peter. The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2000. Discusses Cain’s career as a pulp author, the role of pulp magazines in American culture, and Cain’s contribution to the form. Index.Hoopes, Roy. Cain. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982. Comprehensive biography is divided into four chronological parts, covering his years in Maryland and France, New York, Hollywood, and Hyattsville. Includes an afterword on Cain as newspaperman. Supplemented by extensive source notes, a list of Cain’s publications, a filmography, and an index.Horsley, Lee. The Noir Thriller. New York: Palgrave, 2001. A scholarly, theoretically informed study of the thriller genre and its embrace of the dark thematic material that lent itself to adaptation into film noir. Cain is prominently featured. Bibliographic references and index.Madden, David. Cain’s Craft. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985. One of Cain’s earliest academic champions explores the author’s literary techniques. Compares some of Cain’s works to novels by other writers and addresses the ways in which Cain’s books have been adapted to the screen.Madden, David. James M. Cain. New York: Twayne, 1970. Well-written introductory volume takes note of Cain’s varied reputation as an excellent, trashy, important, and always popular writer. Approaches every major aspect of his work on several levels, including his life in relation to his writing, analysis of his characters, and his technical expertise. Complemented by notes, a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and an index.Marling, William. The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. Intriguing exercise in literary criticism links the hard-boiled writings of Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler to contemporary economic and technological changes. Marling sees these writers as pioneers of an aesthetic for the postindustrial age.Nyman, Jopi. Hard-Boiled Fiction and Dark Romanticism. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Examines the fiction of Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, and Horace McCoy and asserts that the romanticism and pathos in these works reflects the authors’ nostalgia for a lost world of individualism and true manhood.Oates, Joyce Carol. “Man Under Sentence of Death: The Novels of James M. Cain.” In Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. Brief but wide-ranging essay approaches Cain’s novels as significant for the light they throw on his relationship with the American audience of the 1930’s and 1940’s.Shaw, Patrick W. The Modern American Novel of Violence. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson, 2000. Analysis of violence in American novels includes an examination of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Concludes that in writing this “sadistic” novel, Cain created a “sardonic, unencumbered narrative style that proved more influential than the story it conveyed.”Skenazy, Paul. James M. Cain. New York: Continuum, 1989. Comprehensive study of Cain’s work. Skenazy is more critical of the author’s writing than are some other commentators (including Madden, cited above) but acknowledges Cain’s importance and his continuing capacity to attract readers.Wilson, Edmund. “The Boys in the Back Room.” In Classics and Commercials. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1950. Personal essay by an astute social and cultural commentator groups Cain with John Steinbeck, John O’Hara, William Saroyan, and others in the 1930’s and 1940’s who were influenced by Ernest Hemingway. Wilson considers Cain to be the best of these writers.
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