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Critical reaction to James M. Cain has always been mixed; Edmund Wilson honored him as one of America's "poets of the tabloid murder," whereas Raymond Chandler dismissed him as "a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking." Paul Skanazy's judicious and well-balanced study succeeds in identifying both the virtues that Wilson (and others) saw in Cain's novels as well as the many defects that man his work.
Although Skenazy examines Cain's entire writing career that spanned over five decades, he focuses attention on (and largely reserves praise for) the novels of the 1930s and the famous films made from them on which Cain's reputation is based. In his opinion, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1935), Serenade (1937), and Mildred Pierce (1941) are more than simple sex-and-violence melodramas. By viewing them as "parables of desire, fulfillment, betrayal and punishment" and as versions of the southern California myth of the promised land, Skenzay identifies Cain's contribution to American fiction of the period.
But by 1941, according to Skenazy, Cain had largely written himself out. His later novels are afflicted by a turning away from those very virtues that made his best works so powerful: the pacing slows, the plots stumble uncertainly, the prose becomes overblown. Worse, politeness, piety, and literary discretion replace the daring excursions into the unforbidden that give his best works such an explosive charge.
Cain is usually linked with those two other tough-guy masters of the period, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Skanazy, however, argues that Cain's work is more gothic than hard-boiled. His feverish fantasies capture a different tone and reveal a different sensibility than what is ordinarily identified as hard-boiled. Far less a stylistic innovator than either Hammett or Chandler, Cain's success came as a vivid chronicler of marginal lives. His choice of a confessional mode of narration turned his best novels into "extravagant melodramas of violence and passion."
Skanazy's readings of the individual novels are psychologically convincing and sociologically provocative. Although he is forced to conclude that not even Cain's best work can sustain comparison with the very best American fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, he makes a strong and convincing case that no writer of [End Page 752] his generation better captures "the note of pathetic confused longing that is so much a part of our national psyche." Cain, according to Skenazy, "worked the melodramatic edge of the everyday, discovering the nightmare dispositions and inhuman distortions of our culture, the dark designs behind the smiling face of democracy."