James M. Cain (1892-1977) did not write about detectives or publish in the pulps. He was an Easterner, a newspaperman and a protégé of H. L. Mencken who went West during the Depression to write for Hollywood. There he wrote movie scripts and crime novels. His gift for dialogue and the first-person, confessional form of his narratives gave them the suspense other writers achieved with a detective on a case.
Born in 1892 to an Irish family in tidewater Maryland, Cain grew up in an atmosphere that he once described as “feinschmecker Catholicism,” meaning that his parents were “gourmets of religious ritual.” They attended mass regularly because “the services were mounted in a manner worthy of Ziegfeld.” 1 By thirteen, Cain did not believe a word of the “whole mumbo-jumbo, especially the confessional, where I was faking and suddenly knew that the priest knew it.” 2 Not surprisingly, Cain’s narratives are, at base, “faked confessions.”
Cain’s first home was a faculty duplex (now the Paca-Carroll student dorm) at St. John’s College in Annapolis, where his father, who had played football and rowed at Yale, was professor of math and English. Handsome and flamboyant, he overshadowed Cain’s mother, a gifted soprano who nurtured the writer’s interest in music. While his father rose through the ranks to become vice-president of St. John’s, Cain led a bucolic life with his three sisters and brother in the genteel colonial capitol. He skipped several grades and, after the family moved across the Chesapeake Bay to Chestertown, where his father became president of Washington College, he entered that college’s prep school at twelve. He entered the College itself at fourteen, “a midget among giants,” socially inept but coasting intellectually. 3 His main concern was looking and acting older, styling himself as a pool shark and playing the iconoclast. He edited the college magazine and was class vice-president, but he had no idea what he wanted to do when he graduated at eighteen in 1910. 4
Young Cain tried teaching, inspecting roads, singing, and selling insurance, before getting on as a police reporter at The Baltimore American. In 1917 he shifted to The Baltimore Sun, one of the best papers in the U.S. and the catbird seat of critic H. L. Mencken. Drafted in 1918, Cain served with a headquarter’s troop during World War I and edited The Lorraine Cross during the occupation. On his return, he married childhood sweetheart Mary Clough, whom he offended by dressing sloppily, treating Prohibition as a joke, and speaking a tough-guy lingo out of the side of his mouth. A job awaited Cain at The Sun and he finally met Mencken, whose icon-smashing books and editorship of Smart Set made him a powerful influence on the writing styles of this generation.
Cain began to specialize in his reportage, covering the West Virginia coal field battles, even becoming a member of the United Mine Workers. He placed articles on this topic in The Atlantic and The Nation. He developed his own deft handling of dialogue during a stint of teaching at St. John’s, and eventually he found a job through his Baltimore connections at the New York World, where he ended up writing “light” or “color” pieces for the editorial page of Walter Lippeman.
Cain moved to New York City alone in 1924, leaving Mary in Annapolis. These were the declining days of the glorious World, a paper purchased by Joseph Pulitzer in 1883. 5 Besides Lippmann, the editorial pages printed Maxwell Anderson, Allan Nevins, Arthur Krock, Franklin P. Adams, and Heywood Broun. Cain specialized in the offbeat editorial — praise for man-eating sharks and jazz in church, denunciation of federal regulation of baseball and of Americanized opera. 6
He lived mostly with Elina Tyszecka, a Finn whose spouse, like Cain’s, was elsewhere, but he dated five or six women. According to one reporter, Cain “was almost aggressive about wanting you to know he was living in sin.” When Elina went on a long trip, he moved in with yet another woman, a reporter at his paper. 7 Cain drank prodigiously with Mencken when he was in town, and otherwise with the World, New Yorker or Algonquin Round Table crowds. They all had a cynical view of relations between the sexes. “Love is the illusion that one woman differs from another,” Mencken thundered. Cain thought himself romantic when he countered, “Love is the discovery that one woman does differ from another.” 8
In 1925 Cain wrote several debunking pieces for American Mercury. He attacked altruists in “The Pathology of Service” and Seventh Day Adventists in “Servants of the People.” In “The Pastor” he wrote that “the typical American man of God in these our days is so loathsome, such a low, greasy buffo, so utterly beneath ridicule, so fit only for contempt.” 9 In 1926 Cain wrote a play, Crashing the Pearly Gates, about economic conflict and sexual temptation in the coal fields, but it closed after a week. If Cain saw sex everywhere, it was with reason. He was seeing yet another woman when Elina returned, expecting to marry him; however, he divorced Marry and married Elina, and he adopted her children.
The most sensational news story of 1927 and 1928 was the trial and execution of “Tyger Woman” Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray (left) for the murder of her husband Albert. Gray’s situation was eerily like Cain’s and it tapped strong national fears about the Twenties “flappers,” and sexuality. A circulation war among East Coast newspapers helped to keep the story on the front page for eight months and a sensational photo of Ruth Snyder’s electrocution in the New York Daily News in 1928 later shocked the nation.
Ruth, 31, was a striking blond with “a gaze of Scandinavian iciness,” who supposedly convinced corset-salesman Judd Gray, her lover, to bludgeon her husband with a sash weight and then to strangle him with picture wire. 10 Though a mother, Ruth dressed like a flapper, stocked her basement with Prohibition booze, and liked to gamble. She focussed public fears about flappers as mothers. Gray was so short and dejected, the New York Times reported, that spectators thought him a dupe and compared him to Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp.” He testified that, after sex, Ruth would claim her husband beat her: “I’d like to kill the beast,” he’d respond heroically. “Do you really mean that?” she asked with interest. Beneath her cool surface, the newspapers detected a fiery “Tiger Woman.” 11
Like Cain, Gray had gone to World War I an innocent and returned having tasted Europe’s alcohol and freer sex. Prohibition was in force when he returned, with boyish, revealingly-dressed flappers everywhere. But when he married the women his parents liked, she bored him. Rather than let life pass him by, Gray cultivated a series of women, until he found Ruth. They kept a permanent suitcase at the Waldorf, where they met three times a week. The sex was apparently a revelation, and afterwards they shopped at Macy’s or danced in nightclubs. It was an affair full of bad dialogue, an excuse for not missing what the “Jazz Age” offered. 12 Ruth’s electrocution was surreptitiously photographed by the New York Daily News ( above right).
Two aspects of the trial caught Cain’s attention especially. Without his knowledge, Snyder took out personal injury insurance on her husband for fifty thousand dollars and double indemnity in case of death. She instructed the postman to deliver payment coupons only to her, ringing the doorbell twice as a signal. This sign and “double indemnity” became commonplaces for sexual duplicity.13 The second aspect that Cain later recalled was not factual: that after the murder Snyder sent Gray off on the train to establish his alibi upstate with a bottle of relaxing wine that was laced with cyanide. But this added detail made the “double” threat of the femme fatale explicit.
Cain did not use this plot until he left New York in 1931 to become a Hollywood screenwriter. After the Stock Market Crash in 1929, the paper’s ad revenues dropped, and it was sold to Scripps-Howard in 1930. Cain worked next as managing editor of The New Yorker, but when Paramount offered him $400 a week, he, Elina, and her children packed up.
Despite his gift for dialogue, Cain was never a great scriptwriter. But like Chandler, he loved the Paramount commissary and the writers’ talk there (below). Released after his first studio contract, Cain drove around southern California – one of the chief forms of recreation there – looking for magazine articles to write. In his early articles Cain couldn’t praise the friendly Californians, their excellent schools, and extensive roads highly enough. One place he liked was a lion farm that supplied animals to movies. 14 He combined this with the drama he read into a young couple running a nearby gas station: “Always this bosomy-looking thing comes out – commonplace, but sexy, the kind you have ideas about. We always talked while she filled up my tank. One day I read in the paper where a woman who runs a filling station knocks off her husband. Can it be this bosomy thing? I go by and sure enough, the place is closed. I enquire. Yes, she’s the one – this appetizing but utterly commonplace woman.” 15 In Cain’s sensational “The Baby in the Icebox” (1933), the husband lets the 500-pound cat loose in the house to kill her. She puts the baby, possibly illegitimate, in an unplugged freezer for safety, and then locks her husband in the house. Just after he shoots her through a window, the cat turns on him and kills him. The house catches on fire, but the baby survives in the freezer.
Encouraged by Knopf, Cain began a novel he called Bar-B-Que. The basic plot came from the Snyder-Gray case, which he discussed with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. Lawrence introduced Cain to the Hollywood principle of the “love rack” – that the audience had to care about characters, that love stories were the best plot to make them do so, and that one of the lovers had to be a “losing lover.” It took Cain six months to write the story of Frank Chambers, a drifter who finds work at the roadside gas station/ sandwich joint of Greek immigrant Nick Papadakis and his steamy wife Cora.
Cain continued to write magazine and newspaper pieces until the novel came out in 1934. “Postman was probably the first of the big commercial books in American publishing,” writes biographer Roy Hoopes, “the first novel to hit for what might be called the grand slam of the book trade: a hard-cover best-seller, paperback best-seller, syndication, play and movie. It scored more than once in most of these mediums and still sells on and on, even today.” 16 The novel set a new standard of hard-boiled-ness; it was so tough that the New York Times‘s reviewer called it a “six-minute egg.” 17
After making only $3,000 in 1933, Cain was suddenly in demand. 18 Reprint and movie rights sold; the studios called. Cain next wrote an eight-part serial, “Double Indemnity” for Liberty magazine in 1936. Part recasting of Postman, part recollection of his youth selling insurance, Double Indemnity portrayed a corporate/legal control of life that amounted to “double jeopardy” and appealed to Depression readers’ sense of helplessness. The movie of Double Indemnity (1944) became the masterwork of film noir, but Cain had little to do with it.
Reprints, serials and movie sales kept the Cains living well. This was fortunate, because Cain devoted himself to unsuccessful stage versions of his own and others’ works, and then, in 1937, to a music-themed novel, Seranade. 19 With his publisher, Alfred Knopf, begging for new work, 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.
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.” 22
In 1946 Cain published Past All Dishonor, a historic novel set in the Nevada of the 1850s with an incest plot. Historic settings and this plot were to dominate Cain’s work for the next two decades, during which he published another nine books. None of them can be termed hard-boiled. Cain married twice more: to Aileen Pringle in 1944, and to Florence McBeth in 1947. He and Florence moved to Hyattsville, Maryland, and they spent the rest of their lives there. Cain died on October 27, 1977 at the age of eighty-five. 23