Crime noir anyone?
There’s something about the American crime fiction of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Hardboiled (without the sweary words), and wearing well Chandler, Hammett and the third in the trinity, often neglected, but my personal favourite James M Cain.
I like realism. I, therefore, like Cain’s style. From the preface of Double Indemnity:
“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”
He also does a great line in villainesses. Phyllis Nirdlinger from Double Indemnity is, by far, the most wicked fictional female I’ve ever met – even managing to steal the crown from the legendary Cruella de Ville! So it was with great anticipation that I approached Cain’s most substantial novel, Mildred Pierce ….
…. only to find that Mildred is a saint of sorts. An American middle-class mom, coping more than stoically with the breakup of her marriage and the great depression. Forced to dig deep into her reserves, clawing her way out of calamity by taking on a job waiting tables – heavens forbid, far beneath her. But from the ashes rises a phoenix, an astute business women, more than capable of grabbing the opportunities that present themselves.
Not typical Cain fare then? I must admit Mildred was a bit of a disappointment – she’s certainly no femme fatale à la Phyllis. However, Mildred’s problem is not the succession of male losers who inhabit her world (although they are a source of great entertainment), but her eldest daughter. Oh Veda, Veda, Veda – the trouble you cause your mother – you snobbish, selfish, manipulative, conniving ingrate – and the source of Mildred’s real tragedy. Veda – not quite in Phyllis’s league but, by the end of the novel, only 20 and with plenty of potential.
Cain really does women well and there are times when your heart bleeds for Mildred – Veda, her only vulnerability and Achilles heel. Mildred, real flesh and blood, fallible saint, therefore, testament to Cain’s realism. Only one false note in 304 pages – I don’t believe for one minute that a mother could continue to open a business the day after the death of her youngest daughter. Or was the depression so bad that grief became an unaffordable luxury?