Why do we like evil, or rather, are fascinated by it, especially in its literary manifestations? Philosophically, evil is needed, for without it how can we recognise/do good, the fundamental underpinning of virtually all religions and moral systems? This may also hold true in the literary sense, where we also can experience a vicarious view of its course — without the resultant consequences.
The literary depiction of evil also depicts changing social mores and political beliefs — as crime fiction’s most prominent category shows. At its inception, detective fiction once featured (mostly) rule-abiding protagonists like Sherlock Holmes and impartial justice, but within a decade or two, there was the “hard-boiled” (or “pulp”) variant, with tarnished, cynical and disillusioned “anti-hero” detectives, more violence (and sex), and the legal system as corrupt as the organised crime it was ranged against.
Then this sub-genre — a primarily American phenomenon but growing to influence the rest of the world, like many other American inventions — also transformed into “crime noir”. Here the protagonists are not detectives, but instead normal people who become victims, suspects, or perpetrators of crimes — due to personal or psychological reasons, not social or circumstantial; and the mood of fear and menace is constant, passions like greed and lust predominate, and endings are rarely pretty.
While hard-boiled crime was pioneered by Dashiell Hammett (“The Maltese Falcon”) in the mid-1920s and taken further by Raymond Chandler (of “Philip Marlowe” fame) and James M. Cain, who ended up in both camps, being credited with originating “crime noir” through his first few novels.
Starting of as a journalist, James Mallahan Cain (1892-1977), after the Stock Market Crash in 1929, went to California to become a screenwriter for Paramount, but wasn’t too successful. He continued to write for various newspapers and magazines while exploring the state. And it was here that he got ideas of place and character, along with some lurid crimes he remembered from before, to begin writing his most immortal works.
However, he claimed he never wanted to invent the style. “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,” he said.
But Cain was a unique author, if one goes by the success of his early works and the number of their cinematic and other adaptations, prompted by his penchant for crisp dialogue, the first-person, confessional form he used to create nail-biting suspense and superb characterisation.
His debut novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1934) became a French film in 1939, in Italian in 1942, in English twice (1946, 1981), in Hungarian in 1998, and in German-Turkish in 2008. The third book, “Mildred Pierce” (1941), reached the screen in both 1945 and 2011, and “Double Indemnity”, a magazine serial in 1936 and one of the three novellas in “Three of A Kind” (1943), went onscreen in both 1944 and 1973.
Let’s see what they are about.
The story of a sleazy, unpleasant and ultimately fatal illicit love affair, “The Postman..” sees drifter Frank Chambers come to a restaurant run by an elderly Greek man, Nick, and his younger wife Cora, get a job there — and Cora. The problem occurs when they decide to kill Nick, and go on to do it — but it’s too perfect a crime and the law is on to them.
But still their lawyer gets them off — to win a bet with the prosecutor — but will Frank and Cora have a future together, and why does it end with him on the death row? We learn in this account of violence and violent sadomasochistic sex: “I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth.”
“Serenade” (1937) is about an opera singer who loses his voice but regains it after a night of lusty love with a Mexican whore in a deserted church during a storm. He takes her back to New York but there is a threat from the man whose homosexual liaison with him had caused his traumatic loss of voice. Will murder help him?
“Mildred Pierce” is more about toxic relations, obsession over children and their future, manipulation and some near-incest along with crime. “Double Indemnity”, however, reprises “The Postman..”, being about a bored insurance agent getting caught in a beautiful but amoral woman’s plot to kill her husband by offering him sexual and financial incentives as well as playing on his pride about his expertise. Unfortunately, his colleague, a claims adjuster, is sharper and nothing good is going to come out for them.
While Cain would go on to write a further a dozen books in his lifetime and plan more (three were published posthumously, including as late as 2012), none became as known as these three. Watch the films, or better still, read them — just don’t get too inspired.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])