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American Literary History 14.2 (2002) 255-283
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Beating the Boss:
Cain's Double Indemnity
John T. Irwin
The two writers most frequently associated with James M. Cain in any discussion of hard-boiled fiction are, of course, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and indeed the three men's lives and careers have much in common. Like Hammett, Cain was born and raised in Maryland, served in the US Army during World War I, and contracted pulmonary tuberculosis as a result of that service. Like Chandler, who served in the Canadian Army, Cain actually saw combat. All three men turned to fiction writing after leaving other lines of work—Hammett had previously been an operative for the Pinkerton detective agency and advertising manager of a San Francisco jewelry store; Chandler, a vice-president of a southern California oil company; and Cain a newspaperman and managing editor of The New Yorker. After the war all three lived at various times in California and made it the setting for their best work. Indeed, the three so closely identified their main characters with the state and its state of mind that Hammett's Continental Op and Sam Spade seem impossible to imagine apart from the foggy streets of San Francisco, while Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Cain's Frank Chambers and Walter Huff are equally inseparable from the harsh, sunlit world of Los Angeles and its environs. Of course, Hammett, Chandler, and Cain all worked as Hollywood screenwriters, though only Chandler had any appreciable success in films, gaining his first screen credit for the script of Cain's Double Indemnity (1944), which he coauthored with the picture's director Billy Wilder. Chandler went on to write the original script for The Blue Dahlia (1946) and to adapt the Patricia Highsmith novel for Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951). Cain, on the other hand, noted in the preface to The Butterfly that while several of his stories had "made legendary successes when adapted for films," he himself had "never been particularly successful" in the picture business: [End Page 255] "Moving pictures simply do not excite me intellectually, or aesthetically. . . . I know their technique as exhaustively as anybody knows it . . . but I don't feel it" (355).
All three writers shared the same publisher, Knopf, for most of their careers, as well as a close working relationship with Alfred and Blanche Knopf. They were also used to being grouped together by critics, an association that Chandler and Cain both resented. Chandler wrote his publisher Alfred Knopf in February 1943: "I hope the day will come when I don't have to ride around on Hammett and James Cain, like an organ grinder's monkey. Hammett is all right. I give him everything. There were a lot of things he could not do, but what he did he did superbly. But James Cain—faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things but because they do it in a dirty way" (qtd. in MacShane 101). As for the practice of labeling writers, Cain commented, "Although I have read less than twenty pages of Mr. Dashiell Hammett in my whole life, Mr. Clifton Fadiman can refer to my hammett-and-tongs style and make things easy for himself" ("Preface" 352). The 20 pages of Hammett that Cain had read were from The Glass Key (1931), and Cain's reaction to the novel was "forget this goddamn book" (qtd. in Hoopes 213). Later in his life, Cain would say that while he liked mystery writer Rex Stout, "he would not read Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler" (qtd. in Hoopes 470). In contrast, Hammett left no written record of his opinion of Cain or Chandler, perhaps because Hammett's last novel, The Thin Man, appeared in the same year (1934) as Cain's...