James M. Cain (1892-1977)

431 (1)James Mallahan Cain (July 1, 1892 – October 27, 1977) was an American journalist and crime writer. Although Cain himself vehemently opposed labelling, he is usually associated with the hard-boiled school of American crime fiction and seen as one of the creators of the roman noir.

Cain was born into an Irish Catholic family in Annapolis, Maryland. The son of an educator and a failed opera singer, he inherited a love of music from his mother, but his hopes of a career as a singer were thwarted when she told him that his voice was not good enough. After graduating from Washington College, where his father, James W. Cain, he was drafted into the United States Army and spent the final year of World War I in France writing for an army magazine.

Upon returning to the United States, Cain continued working as a journalist. He briefly served as the managing editor of The New Yorker and later worked mainly on screenplays and novels. His first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934. Two years later Double Indemnity (1936) was serialized in Liberty magazine. Cain made use of his love of music, particularly the opera, in at least three of his novels: Serenade (1937), about an American opera singer who loses his voice and, after spending part of his life south of the border, re-enters the United States illegally with a Mexican prostitute; Mildred Pierce (1941), in which, as part of the subplot, the surviving daughter of a successful businesswoman trains as an opera singer; and Career in C Major, a short semi-comic novel about the unhappy husband of an aspiring opera singer, who unexpectedly discovers that he has a better voice than she does. In his novel The Moth (1948), music is important in the life of the main character. Cain’s fourth wife, Florence Macbeth, was a retired opera singer.

Cain spent many years in Hollywood working on screenplays, but his name appears as a screenwriter in the credits of only two films: Stand Up and Fight (1939) and Gypsy Wildcat (1944), for which he is one of three credited screenwriters. For Algiers (1938) Cain received a credit for “additional dialogue”, and he had story credits for other films.

Cain continued writing up to his death, at the age of 85. He published many novels from the late 1940s onward, but none achieved the financial and popular success of his earlier books. (Source: Excerpts from Wikipedia)

On a personal note, Double Indemnity is much better than The Postman Always Ring Twice, but I couldn’t finish the reading of Mildred Pierce, though I’ve seen the film. From then on, my interest for his novels has faded. Anyhow, if only for these two novels, Double Indemnity and The Postman, James M. Cain deserves a place of honour among the crime writers of his time.

Further reading:

From Wikipedia: Double Indemnity is a 1943 crime novel, written by American journalist-turned-novelist James M. Cain. It was first published in serial form in Liberty magazine in 1936 and then was one of “three long short tales” in the collection Three of a Kind (together with Career in C Major and The Embezzler [first published as Money and the Woman, in Liberty magazine, 1938]). Double Indemnity later served as the basis for the film of the same name in 1944, adapted for the screen by the novelist Raymond Chandler and directed by Billy Wilder. Cain based the novella on a 1927 murder perpetrated by a married woman in Queens, New York, and her lover, whose trial he attended while working as a journalist in New York. In that crime, Ruth Snyder persuaded her boyfriend, Judd Gray, to kill her husband, Albert, after having him take out a big insurance policy with a double indemnity clause. The murderers were quickly identified, arrested and convicted.

After Paramount purchased the rights to the novella for Wilder, the next step was a screenplay. Wilder first choice, James M. Cain himself, was working for another studio and unavailable. Producer Joseph Sistrom, an avid reader and an admirer of The Big Sleep, then suggested Raymond Chandler. Initially, Wilder and Chandler had intended to retain as much of Cain’s original dialogue as possible. It was Chandler who first realized that the dialogue from the novella did not translate well to the screen. Wilder disagreed and was annoyed that Chandler was not putting more of it into the script. To settle it, Wilder hired a couple of contract players from the studio to read passages of Cain’s original dialogue aloud. To Wilder’s astonishment, Chandler was right, and in the end, the movie’s cynical and provocative dialogue was more Chandler and Wilder than it was Cain.

Cain was very pleased with the way his book turned out on the screen. After seeing the picture half a dozen times, he was quoted as saying “It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of. Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine – I would have done it if I had thought of it.”

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(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Alfred A. Knopf (USA), 1943)

A true crime masterpiece, and highly acclaimed 1940s movie
Double Indemnity is the classic tale of an evil woman motivated by greed who corrupts a weak man motivated by lust.
Walter Huff is an insurance investigator like any other until the day he meets the beautiful and dangerous Phyllis Nirdlinger and falls under her spell. Together they plot to kill her husband and split the insurance. It’ll be the perfect murder . . . (Source: Orion Books)

Double Indemnity has been reviewed, among others, at The Complete Review, JacquiWine’s Journal, Mystery File, Vintage Pop Fictions, Tipping My Fedora and Mysteries Ahoy!

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