With his publisher, Alfred Knopf, begging for new work, James M. Cain finally finished The Embezzler, a novella about the Depression’s most common crime that eventually appeared in Three of a Kind (1943). Having completed his contract, Cain was free to sell his last major hard-boiled fiction, Mildred Pierce, to the highest bidder, which was also Knopf. 20 This 1941 tale economic ambition, ruthlessness, and manipulation, featuring an incest motif, was an exceptional portrait of Depression tensions. Mildred Pierce was an exceptional portrait of Depression tensions, but it was not noir. Long sections deal with Mildred’s entrepreneurship, and others with her spoiled daughter’s singing career. However, at the behest of Warner Bros. producer Jerry Wald, screenwriter Ronald MacDougal (with uncredited work by William Faulkner and Catharine Turney), turned the novel into a noir murder-mystery (Michael Curtiz, 1945) that revived Joan Crawford’s flagging stardom (right). Cain only returned to the topic of crime once more, in The Embezzler, about the Depression’s most common crime, which appeared in Three of a Kind (1943).
With this advance, Cain had a long overdue operation for gallstones and an ulcer. He fielded questions from Edmund Wilson, who wrote the first major critical piece on the hard-boiled school – “The Boys in the Back Room” – for the New Republic in 1941. “The poets of the tabloid murder,” wrote Wilson, all “…stemmed originally from Hemingway.” 21 Possibly because of this essay, the press expected Mildred Pierce to be a major event. But the reviews were disappointing and Cain, his stomach repaired, began to drink too much. Although he worked for Hollywood in the early 1940s and had some of his scripts and novels filmed, he wrote no important hard-boiled fiction the rest of the decade. He did write an introduction to a collection aimed at soldiers called For Men Only (1943), in which he stated:
“The world’s great literature is peopled by thoroughgoing heels, and in this book you will find a beautiful bevy of them, with scarcely a character among them you would let in the front door. I hope you like them. I think they are swell.”