The hand that holds the money cracks the whip.

Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain

James M. Cain is one of the giants of noir fiction. I’ve previously reviewed his The Postman Always Rings Twice, and like pretty much everyone I loved it. Since I’ve never seen the movie of Mildred Pierce and didn’t know the story in advance I figured it would be something similar – desperate people struggling to keep their heads above water but with the land increasingly far from sight.

Well, there’s a bit of that, but Mildred Pierce is something darker and richer too. It’s a novel about a woman who gives everything she has for a daughter who just doesn’t give a damn. It’s a story of love, obsession, power and definitely money. It’s bloody good.

Mildred Pierce is a married mother of two daughters. It’s the Great Depression and times are hard: her husband’s real estate business is a failure and Mildred’s baking cakes at home for sale to their neighbours to help make ends meet. When the marriage breaks up things look bleak; Mildred’s barely getting by, and soon might not be getting by at all.

… in the same mail was a brief communication from the gas company, headed ‘Third Notice’, and informing her that unless her bill was paid in five days, service would be discontinued. Of the three dollars she got from Mrs Whitley, and the nine she got from the other orders, she still had a few dollars left. So she walked down to the gas company office and paid the bill, carefully saving the receipt. Then she counted her money and stopped by a market, where she bought a chicken, a quarter pound of hot dogs, some vegetables, and a quart of milk. The chicken, first baked, then creamed, then made into three neat croquettes, would provision her over the weekend. The hot dogs were a luxury. She disapproved of them, on principle, but the children loved them, and she always tried to have some around, for bites between meals. The milk was a sacred duty. No matter how gritty things got, Mildred always managed to have money for Veda’s piano lessons, and for all the milk the children could drink.

Money isn’t the only problem. Now Mildred’s divorced the other wives see her as a threat and the men, married or not, see her as fair game. An unmarried woman is a dangerous thing. Her best friend advises her to land another man as soon as she can, and the recruitment agent she sees tells her flat-out to do the same because there’s no jobs and millions of applicants, most of them with training and experience – Mildred has neither.

Here are sales people, men and women, every one of them with an A1 reference – they can really move goods. They’re all laid off, there’s no goods moving, but I don’t see how I could put you ahead of them. And here’s the preferred list. Look at it, a whole drawerful, men and women, every one of them a real executive, or auditor, or manager of some business, and when I recommend one, I know somebody is getting something for his money. They’re all home, sitting by their phones, hoping I’ll call. I won’t call. I’ve got nothing to tell them. What I’m trying to get through your head is: You haven’t got a chance. Those people, it hurts me, it makes me lie awake nights, that I’ve got nothing for them. They deserve something, and there’s not a thing I can do. But there’s not a chance I’d slip you ahead of any one of them. You’re not qualified.

Mildred’s pride means she sees herself as a potential secretary or  receptionist, but nobody else does. She’s not willing to do just anything and even turns down a job as a housekeeper. Eventually needs must though and as things get more desperate she gets lucky and finds a job as a waitress at a diner. Slowly, things start to turn around for her because Mildred is smart and strong-willed and nobody’s fool. Well, nobody save her daughter’s fool.

Veda is Mildred’s oldest, and Mildred spoils her relentlessly ignoring every sign of the effect that’s having. Nothing is too good for Veda, who is rapidly growing up to be a vain and arrogant snob. They row, Mildred stung by Veda’s condescension and ingratitude, but Mildred’s more proud than angry seeing in Veda an indomitable self-respect which Mildred feels she compromised in herself by taking that waitressing job. Mildred’s sure Veda would never have lowered herself that way, and Mildred intends to see that she’ll never have to.

Here Mildred, convinced that Veda has a real talent for music, prepares to take her to a new and extremely expensive piano tutor:

For the occasion, she laid out some of Veda’s new finery; a brown silk dress, brown hat, alligator-skin shoes, and silk stockings. But when Veda got home from school, and saw the pile on the bed, she threw up her hands in horror. ‘Mother! I can’t be dressed up! Ooh! It would be so provincial!’ Mildred knew the voice of society when she heard it, so she sighed, put the things away, and watched while Veda tossed out her own idea of suitable garb: maroon sweater, plaid skirt, polo coat, leather beret, woollen socks, and flat-heeled shoes. But she looked away when Veda started to dress.

As of that quote there’s about half the book to go, and I haven’t touched on most of what happens up to then and I’m certainly not going to say what happens next. If you’re lucky enough like me not to have seen the film before reading the book it’s worth having the opportunity to discover the story for yourself.

Mildred Pierce wasn’t remotely what I expected. I thought it was a crime novel. It’s nothing of the kind. Instead it’s the story of one highly determined woman; of the men she forms relationships with; the women who support her; and above all of the dangers of a parent putting the weight of their own ambitions on their child. It’s a remarkably powerful read. It takes talent to turn what could easily have been a soap opera into a taut pageturner, but Cain easily pulls it off and this is right up there with his other classics Postman and Double Indemnity*.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, but I expect that’s only because I’ve missed them. Please let me know in the comments.

*Actually, I think in the case of Double Indemnity the film’s better than the book, but it is a good book even so.


Filed under Cain, James M., California, Hardboiled

13 responses to “The hand that holds the money cracks the whip.

  1. I watched and really enjoyed the miniseries with Kate Winslet which had a good atmosphere. I wouldn’t mind reading this though, I loved The Postman Always Rings Twice.

  2. I think you’d enjoy it. It’s well written, and it’s interesting seeing the application of the noir sensibility to a parent-child relationship and a more mundane scenario.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’ve only heard of this in relation to the film, which I always imagined to be quite melodramatic, no doubt due to the presence of Joan Crawford. However, it sounds as if the book is a lot better than that and definitely owrth checking out.

  4. Very nice review, Max. It really whets the appetite for the book, which I’m hoping to read later this year. I’ve seen both the film (with Joan Crawford as Mildred) and the TV mini-series directed by Todd Haynes. Both are worth seeing, but I think the original is my favourite of the two. The thing that struck me about the story was the strength of all the main female characters. Mildred, Veda and the woman who gives Mildred a job as a waitress (Ida?) are the ones that have stayed in my mind, whereas my memories of the men are rather sketchy.

  5. I suppose it is a bit melodramatic, though the book seemed grounded enough to me that it didn’t read that way. It would be easy to play it that way though.

    The men are well drawn, but it’s not about them. Ida is great (I think that is her name), as is Mildred’s best friend from the housing development she lives on who gives her some very pointed advice about catching a new man. Generally it has some of the strongest female characters I’ve read in a while, sharply drawn and credible and in their varying ways forces to be reckoned with.

  6. I haven’t read this but I’ve been meaning to for years. After reading the review, I ask myself: ‘what are you waiting for?’
    I saw the original and since I have a thing for Joan Crawford, I was leery of the miniseries but I ended up enjoying that too.

  7. Tom Cunliffe

    Plenty of darkness in there Max! Love the theme of an unmarried woman being a threat to other women and fair game to men. Maybe life really is like that in some circles!

  8. Guy, I searched yours looking for a review of it and I admit was surprised not to find one. I would love to see your thoughts.

    Tom, definitely. I deleted a particularly choice quote from Mildred’s friend about how the wives only relax once the widow has remarried and is back in the kitchen, and there’s plenty too from her on timing when and in what circumstance having sex with a man will lose him as a potential husband or guarantee him as one. It’s all very bluntly put, but for the period (and for decades thereafter) I suspect it did reflect how life was for a lot of women.

  9. I’d only heard of this via the film versions – I hadn’t realised it was based on a Cain novel. Despite being a fan of noir, I’ve never read him. This sounds like a fairly atypical place to start though.

  10. I started with Double Indemnity, but with foreknowledge I’d have started with Double Indemnity (linked to at the start of this piece) which is both representative of the major part of his work (I believe) and excellent.

  11. I’ll have to remedy that.

  12. I haven’t seen the film and your review really makes me want to read it. It goes on the wish list.

    Reading your post, I couldn’t help thinking about Le père Goriot.

  13. Interesting comparison Emma, though I’ve yet to start the Balzac marathon.

    I do think you’d like this one. As I say somewhere above, it’s an interesting marrying of noir sensibility to a very different sort of story.

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