Although he disliked the title, James M. Cain (1892-1977) is considered one of the preeminent "hard-boiled" crime writers of the 1930s and 1940s along with Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, and Raymond Chandler. His explicit, stark style both startled and enthralled his readers, and his recurring themes of sex, violence, and greed brought controversy to his writing. Cain published his first and most popular novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, in 1934.
James Mallahan Cain was born on July 1, 1892, in Annapolis, Maryland. His father, James William Cain, was an English professor who taught at St. John's College in Annapolis and was president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. His mother, Rose Mallahan, was a professional opera singer. Cain's parents, both of Irish descent, were Catholic, and Cain was baptized in the Catholic Church. At 13 years of age, he abandoned the church and never returned.
Cain attended Washington College and graduated in 1910 at the age of 17. His college experience was rather unremarkable. After college Cain worked at several different jobs, each rather unsuccessfully. He studied singing for a time in hopes of becoming an opera singer like his mother, but when he was told his voice was not good enough to make singing a career, he decided to become a writer. Cain returned to Washington College to teach English and math. In 1917, he earned a master's degree in drama from Johns Hopkins University.
Career in Journalism
In 1917, Cain began his journalism career at the Baltimore American as a reporter. Here he met H. L. Mencken, who would become his mentor and lifelong friend. Mencken greatly admired Cain's writing, and later he would publish many of Cain's short stories and articles in the American Mercury. In 1918, Cain began working for the Baltimore Sun, but his career was put on hold when he enlisted in the United States Army during World War I. He served in France and edited his company's weekly paper, The Lorraine Cross, which became one of the most successful publications of the American Expeditionary Forces.
Cain returned to the Baltimore Sun in 1919, where he remained until 1923. In 1922, Cain made his first attempt at writing a novel. He spent one winter on sabbatical from the paper and wrote three novels. By his own acknowledgment, none of them were noteworthy, and none were ever published. In 1920, he married Mary Rebekah Clough, a teacher. The marriage was brief, however, and in 1923 they separated. In the same year, Cain left the Baltimore Sun to teach English and journalism at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. From 1924 to 1931 Cain wrote editorials at the New York World under Walter Lippman. His editorials and other writings were also published in periodicals such as The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, American Mercury, and Saturday Evening Post. During this time, Cain established a reputation for his witty, sharp-edged satirical commentaries on politics and society. A collection of his essays was published in 1930 as Our Government.
In 1927, Cain was divorced from his first wife and married Elina Sjösted Tyszecka. One year later he sold his first piece of fiction, a short story entitled "Pastorale," to his friend Mencken at the American Mercury. It was a story about a grisly murder, told in the first person with a somewhat comic edge. In this first published fictional work, Cain had started to develop what would become his favorite theme: two people commit a murder but cannot live with the outcome of their crime. With the success of "Pastorale," Cain began to focus more of his attention on fiction writing.
Cain was working as managing editor of the New Yorker in 1931 when several Hollywood producers who had taken notice of his work invited him to California to write screenplays. However, he was unsuccessful as a screenwriter. Six months after moving to Hollywood, Cain was unemployed. Unwilling to leave California, he began free-lance writing articles, editorials, and short stories-mostly political in theme. Cain also began writing the novels for which he is best known.
In 1933, still unsure that he could succeed as a novelist, he wrote a short story entitled "The Baby in the Icebox." The story was a turning point for Cain in several ways. It was the first story Cain had set in California, allowing him to write in the local idiom, a trend he would continue in his novels. The story, which was first published in the American Mercury by Mencken, found favor with well-known publisher Alfred A. Knopf, who encouraged Cain to attempt a novel. Paramount purchased the rights to "The Baby in the Icebox," and it was produced as a film under the title She Made Her Bed.
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Cain's first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934 when Cain was 42 years old. The book was a popular success, but not without controversy. Told as a first-person confessional, his style was darker and more explicit than was customary at the time. His characters' weaknesses were their obsession for sex and money, and violence was their chosen tool to find both. Because of the controversy surrounding the novel, it was originally banned in Canada, and it was not made into a play until 1937. The movie based on the novel was released in 1946.
The story is told from death row by drifter Frank Chambers. He recounts the tale of wandering into a greasy roadside diner owned by a Greek named Nick Papadakis and his wife, Cora, and the tragic events that follow. Frank, who agrees to work at the diner, begins a passionate, sometimes violent, love affair with Cora. Cora convinces Frank to help her kill her husband to collect insurance money. Although they are unsuccessful in their first attempt, their second attempt is successful; Nick is dead and the insurance money is theirs. However, their crime becomes their undoing. As their relationship unravels, Cora is killed in a car accident and Frank is wrongly convicted of her murder.
The Postman Always Rings Twice was first named Bar-B-Q by Cain, but the publisher balked at the title. In searching for a new name, Cain was reminded by a friend of the Irish tradition that the postman always rang (or in the old days, knocked) twice to let the residents know it was the postman. Since everything in the novel seemed to happen twice, including the murder, Cain decided he had found his new title.
The Productive Years: 1936-1947
Over the next several years, Cain wrote extensively. In 1936, he wrote a serial in Liberty entitled "Double Indemnity," a story about an insurance salesman who helps his lover kill her husband for insurance money. However, once the husband is dead, they discover that they no longer love each other. Cain once again stirred up controversy in 1937 with the publication of Serenade, which dealt with sex, violence, and homosexuality. It is based on the love affair between a Mexican prostitute and an opera singer. Cain found success again in 1941 with Mildred Pierce. Set in the context of the Great Depression, Cain dealt again with the discrepancy between the desirable and the attainable. The main character is a housewife who almost finds a way through her painful existence as the owner of a restaurant, but her efforts are ultimately undercut by her greedy daughter.
"Double Indemnity" was made into a movie in 1943, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. Mildred Pierce reached the theaters in 1945, starring Joan Crawford, who won an Academy Award for her part. Due to the success of these two films, producers finally made the controversial Postman Always Rings Twice into a movie in 1946, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield. Although Cain never wrote any of his own screenplays, 13 films were made based on his fictional writing.
Cain divorced Tyszecka in 1942 and was remarried two years later to Aileen Pringle, an actress. Once again, the marriage was short lived and they divorced in 1947. In the same year, Cain married his fourth wife, Florence Macbeth Whitwell, an opera singer. Cain never had children from any of his marriages.
American Authors' Authority
In 1946, Cain attempted to organize the American Authors' Authority to protect the rights and interests of writers. The organization would have acted as trustee of its members' copyrights and negotiated with publishers and producers on issues concerning copyrights, film adaptations, reprints, and translations. It would have also represented the member writers in litigation and lobbied Congress. Cain was most likely motivated by his own experience, since he earned some $100,000 for his writings compared to the $12 million that Hollywood collected for the films based on his novels and short stories. However, his idea failed for several reasons. First, producers and publishers lobbied against it. Second, it was a time of extreme anti-Communist sentiment. Although Cain vehemently denied it, some perceived that such an organization had Communist undertones. Third, many authors themselves were not interested in an endeavor with such commercial interests, thinking of themselves not as business people, but as artists and scholars.
Returned to Maryland
By the mid-1940s, Cain had published his most important and most popular works. Although more of his novels were adapted into films, he never again achieved the success of his early works- The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity. For reasons unknown, Cain and his wife left Hollywood and returned to Maryland in 1947. In the next 29 years, he wrote nine more novels; only three were published, and none were widely read. Cain died of a heart attack on October 27, 1977, in University Park, Maryland; he was 85 years old. His death sparked a renewed interest in his writing. The Postman Always Rings Twice was released as a remake of the original film in 1981. In 1982, a screen version of Butterfly (1947) was produced.
Cain was a master of the plot. Sex and violence, almost always intricately related, were the motivators that drove his characters to believe that the most absurd plan could succeed. The dramatic and the tragic are revealed in the event, which was much more important to Cain than characterization, narration, or social message. Cain's sparely worded style brought to life characters too weak to overlook what appeared to be an easy opportunity to gain love and money. Yet, the sense of desperation flows just below the surface, and the reader is quickly drawn into their all-consuming obsession for love and happiness.
Although a popular writer, Cain's place as a novelist in literary circles is often debated. To his credit, he attracted many readers who themselves were distinguished authors, including Albert Camus, who admitted modeling The Stranger after The Postman Always Rings Twice. To his detriment, Cain used variations of the same theme repetitively: man and woman become lovers, woman convinces man to become involved in something sinister, usually criminal, and man is destroyed by his involvement with the woman. Besides The Postman Always Rings Twice, this is also the basic plot in numerous Cain novels including Serenade, Double Indemnity, The Butterfly, The Magician's Wife, and The Institute. Although not all of his novels are of equal value, there is little doubt that his controversial, stark, first-person narrative style had an impact on the twentieth century literary world.
Further Reading on James Cain
American National Biography. edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, fourth ed., edited by Bruce Murphy. HarperCollins, 1996.
Contemporary Authors, edited by James G. Lesniak. Gale Research, 1991.
Cyclopedia of World Authors, revised third ed., edited by Frank N. Magill. Salem Press, 1997.
Oxford Companion to American Literature, sixth ed., edited by James D. Hart. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English, edited by Jenny Stringer. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Reilly, John M., Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, second ed., St. Martin's Press, 1985.