James M. Cain should be a name that needs no introduction: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Serenade (1937), Mildred Pierce (1941), Double Indemnity (1943), all of them classics of noir both on the page and on the silver screen. Postman in particular blew the doors off sex in literature, one of the first novels in a clean-cut decade to feature sex and lust as a driving force. Cain’s writing focuses on the point where “love at first sight” intersects “crazed animal lust,” the all-encompassing and inflamed passion that can become the first steps down an easy road to murder—death of a husband, a wife, another lover. What many forget is that Cain was really a short-story writer—most of his novels were only around 30,000-40,000 words in length, which falls into “novella” territory today. Cain was at his best with the short story, and many of his best short tales are collected in this edition.
Many of Cain’s novel follow the same theme: a romance between a shifty man and a dangerous woman, set in a darker, seedier part of the world that exists outside of comfortable society. “Pay-Off Girl” has a man falling for a bookie’s pay-off girl in a seedy bar; he’ll have to fight to keep her, though, as she’s working a job you don’t just walk away from. “Brush Fire” has a drifter working for the Civilian Conservation Corps extinguishing California forest fires fall for a beautiful young woman in camp, until he runs afoul of the man he’d saved earlier in the day—her husband. “Coal Black” has a miner and a lost woman trapped in the inky blackness of a coalmine, huddling together in fright; it’s bad luck to bring a woman into a mine, but this chance encounter ends with the desperate hope of a new beginning. In “Two O’Clock Blonde,” it’s between a traveling salesman and the maid of a dumpy hotel—an opportune afternoon affair monkeywrenched by a grift attempt.
These are all excellent stories—I really enjoyed “Coal Black” and “Brush Fire” in particular—but perhaps the best is “The Baby in the Icebox,” set at a roadside gas station operated by a young married couple and told from the perspective of a drifter they’ve employed. The husband wants to get into big cats, and operates his own roadside amusement show; little does he know that his wife has a way with cats, and in her hands even his dangerous pet tiger becomes a docile pet. But neither are happy with their marriage; each is seeing someone on the side, and it’s obvious that the marriage’s days are numbered. With the ensuing deadly game of cat and mouse, it could easily have been titled “Tiger in the Kitchen” instead. A knockout story, and a great way to lead off the collection.
Cain does great work painting the gray underworld where lust, desperation, and greed drive some to murder. “Joy Ride to Glory” has a pair of cons bust out of prison, the protagonist forced at gunpoint by a sadistic killer. A nice surprise twist shows that even a con might get a chance for a fresh start. “Dead Man” follows a train-hopping hobo who kills a railroad detective by accident; he flees back through L.A. in an attempt to evade the police, making several attempts to throw pursuers off his tail. That said, it also has a strong theme of redemption by the end. “Pastorale” is a bit dated (as Cain’s first published story, this should not be surprising), but is still a decent tale. It’s about a drifter named Burbie who returns home and falls in love with a woman—they wish to be together, but have to deal with her rich husband. Desperate to be together, they talk a dangerous killer into killing the old man for his wealth, a mere $23 in change that Burbie planted in a pot. Needless to say, things become more grim and deadly than Burbie anticipated.
Some of the most effective stories are those that aren’t specifically crime stories, though everything is written in Cain’s trademark hardboiled patois. “The Birthday Party” is a sweet coming-of-age story, where a boy would rather go swim in the creek than prepare to go to a girl’s birthday party. When she shows up while he’s swimming, it’s quite apparent that she has her eye on him, though he’s oblivious to it all, and he screws up by making some self-aggrandizing lies. “Mommy’s a Barfly” is a fairly recent discovery—a submitted copy of it was found and printed in 2012. Set in a darkened bar during the War, a torch singer pianist entertains a young girl out far past her bedtime—her mother is a two-timing dancer, married to a handsome sergeant and shacking up with a “pie-faced runt.” Cain intended it as a tearjerker, and it’s quite effective; it wasn’t lost due to its quality, with a wonderful atmosphere full of song, smoke, and grim sadness. “The Taking of Montfaucon” is a dusty war story about two couriers treading across No Man’s Land between two HQ posts, a tale that ostensibly drew from Cain’s own experiences in the Great War.
Cain thrived as a stylist—the reason he worked best at short fiction was because he could pack a lot of punch into a short tale, and his writing does not waste words. He had an exquisite flair for character, and his first-person protagonists all have their own distinct voice—full of accents and jargon and slang, the words of the hard-working lower class and of the underworld, full of shady barrooms and cigarette girls. It’s not the snappiest or most quotable writing, accolades oft used to describe contemporaries Chandler and Hammett. But his writing reads smooth, fast, and clear; Cain understood his characters on a psychological level, and his sparse prose is a thing of beauty. He can evoke a certain seedy, uneasy atmosphere with ease, then spin a romance into it without trying. Chandler hated Cain’s style, but it proved a hit with readers and helped cement noir within mainstream modernist literature. All told, he wrote some of the best short fiction of the 1930s.
James M. Cain wrote tales of Depression-era desperation like none other. His fiction straddles the gray area between hope and damnation—whether it’s a romantic dreaming for a brighter future, or about a criminal on the run from the law. The diversity and quality of his fiction remains high to this day. Several of the stories here are pure potboilers, and they’ve captured the distinctive feel of 1930s literature in both good and bad ways. I’m not quite sure where it fits in MysteriousPress/Open Road Media’s lineup, given there’s a good deal of overlap between it and the two other Cain collections they’ve released, The Baby in the Icebox and Career in C Major, all priced at $7.99. But if you’re a fan of Cain’s work, or would like a good introduction to him, The Complete Crime Stories puts the best of his short works in one place. It collects a sizable number of stories that range from decent potboilers to excellent gems, and deserves a place on the reading list of all noir readers.
Title: The Complete Crime Stories
Author: James M. Cain
Release Date: 2015
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via Netgalley)
ISBN/ASIN: 1504011325 / B00VSLI6LA
First published: 1928-1944 (short stories)