“I OWE NO DEBT, beyond the pleasure his books have given me, to Mr. Ernest Hemingway,” James Cain wrote in the preface to his 1947 novel The Butterfly. “He writes of God’s eternal mayhem against Man, a theme he works into great, classic cathedrals, but one I should be helpless to make use of. I, so far as I can sense the pattern of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination.” Cain goes on to assert that his bare style developed independently of Hemingway’s. Though Cain’s first novel didn’t appear until 1934, he had been practicing his distinctive prose before any of Hemingway’s books came out. The emphasis on “the wish that comes true” also distinguishes his work from Hemingway’s in terms of genre. While Hemingway fits squarely in the realist tradition, Cain, instead, tells fairy tales that end badly. For Cain, “the wish that comes true” comprises everything from spousal murder to criminally amassed wealth to incest to suppressed homosexual desire. As Freud knew, there’s nothing more shattering than getting what you really want, and Cain’s novels tend to end with the fulfillment of that ultimate secret wish — the protagonist’s death. There are exceptions, of course. Career in C Major, for instance, ends with a restored marriage, but it feels false; Mildred Pierce ends similarly, but with Mildred and her returned old man getting “stinko” on liquor, which feels true.
Along with Dashiell Hammett, Cain was the preeminent practitioner of the American “hardboiled” school. These “poets of the tabloid murder,” as Edmund Wilson memorably christened them in a piece on Cain, present, through the refractive lens of their highly stylized prose, certain unpleasant realities otherwise ignored in American literature. The hardboiled genre is informed by the dialectic between poetry and the tabloid — between, that is, self-conscious linguistic intensities and the sensationalism of the cheaper newspapers. In this, the hardboiled might be thought of as a subtype of a whole branch of American modernism, encompassing writers as different as Hemingway and Dos Passos, in which the language of reportage brings a certain flinty authenticity to what would otherwise be only literature. Cain himself seems to have understood the news as a kind of character, a voice to be inhabited. As he said regarding a late-career attempt at editorial writing for the Washington Post, “On paper I can’t be myself, always having to put my novels in the mouth of some characters… But pretending to be the corporate awfulness of the newspaper, I’m in my element.”
As Wilson writes, a focus on tabloid murder links the hardboiled school to “the larger tangles of social interest” represented, for instance, by Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. I would add Zola. Like Zola’s, Cain’s doom-laden naturalism often revolves around specific commercial institutions, taken to be emblematic of the processes of modern life: the insurance industry in Double Indemnity, the restaurant business in Mildred Pierce, the bank in The Embezzler, opera in Serenade, mining and the manufacture of moonshine in The Butterfly. Cain’s novels are always about such institutions, just as Zola’s Nana...read more