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James M. Cain: An Original Hard-Boiled Crime Novelist

Ms. Venegas believes reading is essential for understanding the rapidly changing world. She enjoys sharing books with others.


James M. Cain's Books Are Movies

James M. Cain became famous with his first book "The Postman Always Rings Twice" written in 1934. His writings and well-thought-out plots still influence film and fiction after 80 years. The Coen Brothers used his genre in their film called "The Man Who Wasn't There."

Steven King dedicated Mr. Mercedes to James M. Cain. How does an unknown American author still generate attention and admiration? By being short and sweet with writing style. This quote is an illustration.


..."It Can Be Done."

"Even if it can be done, it's no good."

"It can be done, and it's good."

"Oh, you're telling me what's good."

"Yeah, I'm telling you."

Serenade by James M. Cain 1937

"Just drive" isn't a line from Cain but it is his type of short-and-sweet, to-the-point statements that his characters use. Cain's story is he acquired his dialog style from a bricklayer named Ike. Ike had been laying a new walkway at the college Cain attended and the student would stop and talk.

Cain's father was president of the college, giving the teen access to a college education before the age of eighteen.

Many writers are better known, but according to William Preston Robertson, Cain has not got his due. Reading Robertson's article I had to agree. In fact, a few people reading this page, I am sure have not heard of Cain.

Here is a what Robertson has to say:

"..James M. Cain the writer has got lost. No one would rate Cain a Nobel-worthy man of letters - except maybe Albert Camus, who admitted basing his existentialist work 'The Outsider' on the Cain template. Nevertheless, at the very least Cain deserves a seat alongside the other major fiction-writers of his day. He deserves to be taken seriously, not as some kind of a miner hammering out rough ore for the Hollywood refinery, but for what he was: a first-rate writer of fiction."

Read the whole article about James Cain called "Prince of Darkness".


Short But Sweet Bio of Cain

Cain was no layabout. He completed college with a B.A. at 18 and later earned a Masters. After college he tried several jobs including selling insurance, teaching in a college and inspecting roads.

In 1917 he landed a newspaper job. These years were spent with drinking, infidelities and finally divorcing and remarrying. He spent many years writing everyday human interest editorials, probably hundreds of short articles.

1931 took him and his second family to Hollywood. His new goal was to write a novel. In 1934 "The Postman Always Rings Twice", his first novel, made him famous and he became in high demand as a studio writer.

After "Mildred Pierce" in 1941 his popularity faded, he married again and finally in 1947 married once more settling with Florence McBeth, an opera singer like his mother. They relocated to Maryland and he continued to write, study classical music and lived the retired life. He died in 1977 at 85.

Do Not Let the Best of James Cain Slip By

The mini series "Mildred Pierce" prompted book owners to put their vintage Cain novels up for sale. Buy them now before those books go in hiding again. Before the release of the HBO series Mildred Pierce, it was very rare to see his books on eBay. I have bought six of his used novels for myself since the new miniseries.

Written in the 1930s and '40s, the Cain novels are about people living in those times. These old novels are entertainment still, underlining why reading and writing are ageless. James Cain enjoyed developing ideas for novels and using the typewriter to record them. He researched all his themes.

One gets a true sense of the times when you read his novels and a sense of how progressive of a thinker he was. He wrote about being overweight with a sensitive approach in Galatea; circa 1953.

Mildred Pierce

"Mildred Pierce" is my favorite Cain book. I could identify with the central character because I lived and worked in the Glendale-Pasadena suburbs for many years. The novel's scenes put me in another time zone and opened up the two cities for me. I felt the hills and streets in a 1940 sedan.

If you want an area to open up for you read his books. He does a good job with all his scenes. One scene Mildred is driving in heavy rain from Pasadena to Glendale. I felt like I was in that car on Colorado Blvd. passing old buildings. The book illustrates very good place and character development.

The first film treatment of the novel with Joan Crawford changed the plot and ending. The novel's ending does not involve murder. It is a very believable story and that was Cain's aim in all his writings. He did not start writing novels to showcase hard-boiled crime. His character's personalities showed the desperate side of American life and literary critics started the label soon after his first book release.


Mildred Pierce Remake

I have wanted a remake since 1996.

In 2011, a most anticipated miniseries was made, starring Kate Winslet is the new Mildred Pierce. This was a very good series with this excellent actress. I am very disappointed that it was not shot in Southern California. Cain's book is about the Los Angeles area. It takes place in Glendale, Pasadena, and San Marino with scenes in Laguna Beach.

I like some remakes. The Postman Always Rings Twice with Jessica Lange was good.

I watched the whole Mildred Pierce series in one evening.

Did You Watch the Milred Pierce Miniseries?

Was the new Milred Pierce a thumbs up? Let me know what you thought in the comments.

A Great Biography for Further Reading

Share your stories, sightings, thoughts, rants, and raves about James Cain. What is your impression?

© 2008 Sherry Venegas


anonymous on December 18, 2011:

You taught me something today! I have seen Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice. I didn't know that any of the three were based on a book...much less knowing anything about the author. Thanks for the lens.

julieannbrady on August 19, 2010:

Well, I got to tell you that I never really heard of him -- but will be making more TIME in my life in the not too distant future and I'll try to check him out!

James Jordan from Burbank, CA on January 16, 2010:

I love film noir. Many night watching the late night theater snacking on cookies and milk!

papawu on May 30, 2009:

Although I have heard of him, I am ashamed to admit to never having read any of his work, nor have I seen any of the adapted movies. However, you have piqued my interest and will be perusing his collection in the future. The way operate is, I select one author at a time and then go on to read everything they have ever written. I will keep him on my list.