Tag Archives: James M. Cain

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.

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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.

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Filed under Cain, James M., California, Hardboiled

Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Frank Chambers is a drifter with itchy feet who needs a meal. Nick Papadakis, “the Greek”, runs a roadside diner and needs a handyman. Nick’s wife, Cora, is a lot younger than he is and is starting to regret a marriage she made for security rather than love.

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That’s not the cover I have, but it captures the book well so I thought I’d use it.

At first, Frank’s got no plans to stick around. He just wants to grift some lunch and get on his way.

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Half an hour later Frank has a job, Nick has someone to help round the diner and Cora has a lot more reason to start questioning her marriage.

This is classic noir territory. A man, a woman, somebody in their way. On their own Frank and Cora aren’t saints, but neither is malicious. Frank’s a petty crook and womaniser, but nothing worse than that. Cora is smouldering frustration in a dress, but she’s resigned to the life she chose. The Greek? He’s a nice guy, none too bright, who loves his wife and has small dreams for his diner.

I didn’t realise until I came to write this post that almost every quote I picked was describing Cora. The novel is written from Frank’s viewpoint, and it captures beautifully Cora’s dangerous allure for him. There’s some lovely phrasing here, such as “When she spoke, it was in a whisper that sounded like a snake licking its tongue in and out.” Cora is Eve and serpent both. Frank doesn’t have a chance, but then nor does Cora, and certainly not the Greek. Nobody does.

Nobody sets out here to do anybody any harm. It’s just the situation. Frank and Cora have a connection, they have chemistry. In a very noir sense they’re just unlucky. Frank would rather just walk, but how do you walk from this:

She got up to get the potatoes. Her dress fell open for a second, so I could see her leg. When she gave me the potatoes, I couldn’t eat.

Soon Frank’s convincing Cora to leave Nick, but that would mean being poor and she’s not up for that. The diner isn’t much, but it makes money and run well it could make more. The only thing in their way is the Greek …

I’m not going to spoil the plot for those who’ve not seen the 1946 movie (Lana Turner on top form). All I’ll say is that Frank and Cora know that people will get suspicious if the Greek dies and they’ll likely get investigated for it, so they come up with a plan for the perfect murder. Do Frank and Cora though sound to you like the kind of people who can do anything perfectly?

I hadn’t seen the movie, so the story was new to me. It’s obvious from the opening that Frank and Cora are going to end up trying to kill Nick, but where that leads and how it comes to poison them I hadn’t anticipated at all. This is as much a psychological novel as a noir one. Are Frank and Cora in love, or just in lust? Nick loves Cora and counts Frank as a friend, so how do Frank and Cora trust each other given that they each know the other is perfectly capable of killing someone who wanted nothing but good for them?

Postman is tightly written coming in at around 114 pages in my version. It doesn’t need more because Cain packs depth into the detail. Nick is referred to through most of the book as “the Greek”, but of course this is Frank’s viewpoint and Nick stands in Frank’s way. Is it any wonder he prefers to objectify him? To give him a noun instead of a name?

Similarly, it’s easy to see Cora as a femme fatale, and of course she is but that’s a question of perspective too. If Cora were narrating Frank would be an homme fatale, an attractive stranger who won’t let her push him away and gets her thinking things she might otherwise never have thought. If Frank just left and never came back Cora would be unhappy, but she wouldn’t be dangerous.

That’s perhaps the most noir thing about Postman. This is a black hole of a novel where weak people do terrible things because none of them have the strength to resist their situation. This is a novel of an ugly crime carried out by small people. It’s brilliant, and if you have any interest in the noir genre at all you owe it to yourself to read it.

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Filed under Cain, James M., California, Crime, Noir