Somewhere, and it’s not in this new Everyman’s Library edition, James M. Cain betrayed a state secret when he said that “a writer can only write two hours a day.” The truth in this observation more than makes up for a small perjury in his introduction to his novel The Butterfly: “Except personally, with many engaged in it, I am not particularly close to the picture business, and have not been particularly successful in it. True, several of my stories have made legendary successes when adapted for films…. I have learned a great deal from pictures, mainly technical things. Yet in the four years or more that I have actually spent on picture lots, I have accumulated but three fractional credits.” With his little shrug of “or more,” as though it might be five, five and a half years, Cain hides, I think from himself, the fifteen years since leaving The New Yorker as managing editor and moving to Los Angeles under contract with Paramount. By the time he left Hollywood in 1947, those three fractional credits were Algiers, Stand Up and Fight and Gypsy Wildcat. But Hollywood was his day job, and in the same time he wrote his greatest books, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, all in this collection, along with five stories exhumed from dead magazines. It took Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder to adapt Double Indemnity, almost as faithful a job of typing as John Huston’s script for The Maltese Falcon. It took Faulkner to adapt Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and the only writer who should or could have adapted the Faulkner best suited for film, The Wild Palms, was Cain.
It’s a shame that this really wonderful introduction isn’t included in this collection, because Cain knew how good he was, and says so:
I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise, and I believe these so-called schools exist mainly in the imagination of critics…. Schools don’t help the novelist but they do the critic; using as mucilage the simplifications that the school hypothesis affords him, he can paste labels wherever convenience is served by pasting labels, and although I have read less than twenty pages of Mr. Dashiell Hammet in my whole life, Mr. Clifton Fadiman can refer to my hammet-and-tongs style and make things easy for himself.
Answering what he takes as an irrelevant comparison, he says:
I know no debt, beyond the pleasure his books have given me, to Mr. Ernest Hemingway…. I grant, of course, that even such resemblances between Mr. Hemingway and myself do make for a certain leanness in each of us…and might be taken, by those accustomed to thinking in terms of schools, as evidence that I had in some part walked in his footsteps. Unfortunately for this theory, however, although I didn’t write my first novel until 1933, when he was ten years on his way as a novelist, I am actually six years and twenty-one days older than he is, and had done a mountain of writing, in newspapers and magazines, including dialogue sketches, short stories, and one performed play, before he appeared on the scene at all.
I hadn’t read James M. Cain in more than twenty years and wasn’t sure I wanted to, if it meant finding the crumbs in his beard. When I read Chandler now I want to take his arm from around my shoulders, squeezing me at every metaphor. The thousand tough-guy books written by his imitators, in devotion, have softened the punch of his language, and I already know the stories. Reading Cain again, I am surprised not that he holds up but that seventy years later, his prickly defensiveness seems like modesty. He’s one of the great writers.
That first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), the story of a short-order cook dragged into murder, and Double Indemnity (1936) are simple stories with the same pattern: first-person confessions written a few feet from the grave by the most ordinary men. A woman gets her lover to kill her husband, in a scheme doomed to failure, but no one has the will to change their fate. “I think my stories,” wrote Cain, “have some quality of the opening of a forbidden box, and that it is this, rather than violence, sex…that gives them the drive so often noted…. The reader is carried along by his own realization that the characters cannot have this particular wish and survive.”
In Double Indemnity, Walter Huff, a confident insurance salesman, calls on a home during the day to get a customer to revise his life insurance. He’s not home but his wife is. They flirt, he comes back, the man is still not home, the wife asks him, “Mr. Huff, would it be possible for me to take out a policy for him, without bothering him about it at all?” He “couldn’t be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in the insurance business.” He knows she means murder, and then he fucks her, knowing exactly what will happen; kills the husband in a stupid contrivance of suicide; and just as he expected, it’s not the police but his supervisor who solves the crime, which is no small twist: This is the heart of Cain’s theology. In Double Indemnity, Cain refutes Einstein. God does play dice, and he knows when the dice are loaded.