The Mystery & Suspense of James M. Cain

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Ernest Hemingway wrote. “It’s the best book we’ve had. There was nothing before. There has been nothing since.”

To a fan of Twain’s remarkable dramatic venture, Ernest Hemingway’s assessment will seem spot on, an accurate and uncharacteristically selfless observation. It is no small thing to ascribe such seminal force to a single work, and to Hemingway’s credit, he spent considerable effort himself attempting to put his own fingerprint on the tempestuous landscape of serious American literature.

In that same taxonomic perspective, I herewith propose a writer and his work that dropped a huge rock into the pond of mystery and suspense writing, creating enough of a splash to get others–including a Nobel laureate–damp.

I refer to the all-but-forgotten venture from 1934 that begins with the memorable: “They threw me off the hay truck at about noon.” What follows is the emblematic first-person narrative of Frank Chambers, a restless, opportunistic drifter, looking for an edge during a timeframe called The Great Depression. Like all serious quests, whether for an edge or something more tangible, the seeker ultimately encounters a collateral awareness or understanding, an unanticipated complication. The final effect of the narrative depends on how the seeker deals with this awareness.

Not yet thirty, Frank Chambers, broke and hungry, ends up at an isolated restaurant-gas station venture near Thousand Oaks, run by an agreeable Greek named Nick. Talking his way into an enormous meal, Chambers, takes one look at Nick’s wife, Cora, then allows himself to be hired to run the gas station.

The entire dynamic of James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” comes from the intense, immediate chemistry between Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakas, once a beauty queen from Iowa, who’d come to California in search of her own edge. They connect quickly, hungrily, driven by passion and ambition, torn by conscience.

“The Postman Always Rings Twice” was published when Cain was forty-two, determined to shift careers as a newspaper reporter, editorial writer, editor at “The New Yorker,” and a professor of journalism. His interest in and background in opera and a career in singing, I argue, added to his pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. His experience as a reporter underscored the dramatic awareness already present that characters in dramas as well as real-life persons did not always say what they meant.

Although we can only guess at the sources of inspiration for the character of Frank Chambers, the creation of him as the sole narrative voice in “Postman” is a stunning performance, upstaging Dashiell Hammett’s earlier triumphant narrative voices of Ned Beaumont in “The Glass Key” and the iconic Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon.” Hammett was arguably Beaumont and Spade; Frank Chambers was created from the whole cloth of James M. Cain’s imagination.

“Postman” had scarcely been in print when it was banned in Boston for its violence and put on trial for obscenity, meaning bookstores were not able to stock it, sending curious readers to more lenient venues such as Providence and New Haven. The reasons given for the charges of violence and obscenity reside well within the minds of those contemporary readers who probably would not have read the novel in the first place without the prior warnings.

A Poet of Tabloid Murder

Looking for laundry lists of prurience, one would have to be satisfied with such tropes as “Her arms were around me before I cut the lights. We did plenty. After a while we just sat there.” Although Frank and Cora’s lovemaking activities might not have been taken from an equal-opportunity guidebook, Frank, for all his rough edges, is more often than not responding directly to Cora’s explicit invitations. Frank is also able to express the depth and tenderness of his attraction to Cora: “I kissed her. Her eyes were shining up at me like two blue stars. It was like being in church.”

When Ernest Hemingway was speaking with such emphasis about “Huckleberry Finn,” he went on to mention a relatively ignored giant of American letters whose influence was every bit as unrecognized today as is James M. Cain. Relatively few will brighten at the name of Stephen Crane, whose “The Red Badge of Courage, the longish story “The Open Boat,” and the noir-ish “Maggie, a Girl of the Streets,” had traceable influences on those who came later.

Into the mystery-suspense equation came in 1939 the book-length work of a pulp writer whose own elegance and mastery edged Cain into the shadows. Even though Cain had scored a solid one-two punch, following “The Postman Always Rings Twice” with the equally noir and hard-hitting “Double Indemnity,” his success d’estime was trumped by the appearance of “The Big Sleep,” followed a year later by “Farewell, My Lovely.” Thus were the books of Raymond Chandler launched.

Both writers were prolific, and although Cain produced “Mildred Pierce,” which was made into a relatively good film, and “Serenade,” which was made into a relatively bad film, Chandler had two important momentums going. Even more so than Hammett’s Sam Spade, Chandler’s Philip Marlow defined the restless loner, the twentieth century version of Sir Gawain.

Although powered with resourcefulness and the energy to act quickly to achieve his goals, and at heart by no means selfish to the point of becoming unattractive, Frank Chambers could not keep up with Philip Marlow, either in his metaphoric observations or his more humanistic set of values. Chambers was a one-book star; Marlowe was an ongoing character in a series.

The strength of Chambers and Cora was the primal drama they played out in the sharply drawn scenes while Marlowe, in constant dialogue with the grayness of his own and his client’s motives, had to rely on a more cynical reality. Chambers and Cora knew they were in a trap, a trap of their own upbringing and opportunities. Chambers literally wanted to take the money and run. For a while, Cora did, too, but then she wanted more. Recognizing her own and Chambers’ imperfections and lapses, she began to see she had abilities beyond her own attractiveness and overt sexuality, and she began to see in her own way the extent of her love for Chambers and the effect it had on her regard for him.

Manipulated by attorneys and law enforcement, Chambers and Cora are led each to betray the other, to regret the betrayal and the consequences. They speak with stark honesty about the dark motives they must now confront, even as they marry and hope for a life in which to deal with their love for one another, almost as though it were the same kind of resource as the money and holdings they have come to possess.

Does Raymond Chandler owe James M. Cain? Probably so.

Although Chandler regarded Hammett as his man, similar to Hemingway’s flat-out observation of Twain’s creation with “Huckleberry Finn,” Chandler grew less than collegial with those who were so taken with his work. The Nobel laureate Albert Camus publicly tipped his hat to James M. Cain and “Postman.” Edmund Wilson, the long-time literary conscience of America, referred to Cain as “A poet of tabloid murder.”

The only thing dated about “Postman” is the way sums of money, impressive in 1934, have inflated. The pitch-perfect language of Frank Chambers and the incisive love struggle between him and Cora persist, nearly seventy-five years after the fact, causing one, after all this time, to forget the author and remember his people.