James M. Cain is one of the founding writers of hard-boiled crime fiction, although he vehemently resisted such labeling during his lifetime. His work is notable because it doesn’t follow many of the genre conventions for hardboiled crime, and yet he’s considered one of the greats alongside Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler for his novels about real people turning to crime and violence, and facing the messy consequences that follow. If you’ve ever been curious about picking up Cain’s books, here are a few entry points into his body of work. These five books represent the range of James M. Cain’s style, and will provide you with an entry point into an impressive and dazzling career. If you want to read more about Cain’s influence, read about how his work epitomized hard-boiled crime fiction.
Cain's first novel was so famous for its close-up examination of crime, passion, and adultery that it was banned in Boston and became the cause of a famous obscenity trial. It's the story of a grifter named Frank, who lands at a diner in rural California run by the beautiful Cora and her much older husband, the Greek. Frank ends up sticking around and getting a job, and as he gets closer to Cora, he learns that she's deeply unhappy. But she won't run away—the diner is hers, and she intends to keep it. So she and Frank concoct a plan to kill the Greek, but of course, nothing goes quite as planned.
Walter Huff is an insurance salesman with good instincts, but when he's led to Phyllis Nirdlinger, he finds himself in dark water. Phyllis wants to purchase an accidental death policy for her husband, and Walter immediately understands her intent. He's intrigued by her plan to murder her husband and agrees to help her commit the perfect crime. But when their plan backfires spectacularly, the two are left scrambling to stay one step ahead of the law—and if that doesn't work, Huff plans to escape consequence by any means necessary.
Mildred Pierce is a middle-class divorcee determined to make a life for herself and her two girls in Depression-era Southern California, but it's not easy. She takes a job working at a restaurant and works her way up to owning and running three restaurants of her own—but it's never enough for her vindictive and dismissive daughter, who wants more and looks down on her mother for working. As Mildred goes to increasingly desperate lengths to buy her daughter's love, she gets wrapped up in a dark and illegal scheme that will lead her to a violent confrontation.
The Cocktail Waitress is Cain's final book and was published in 2012 after being pieced together from manuscripts left after his death. It gives voice to the classic femme fatale character in Joan Medford, a young widow whose abusive husband died in a suspicious car accident, leaving her alone to support her young son with an over-mortgaged house and not a cent to her name. She hands her son off to her sister-in-law (temporarily, of course) and goes to work as a cocktail waitress, hoping to get her life on track. While surviving the ins and outs of a hard job where she is often the object of men's desire, Joan meets two very different men who each want her—and she has to decide which direction her life is going to take.
In Serenade, Cain draws upon his youthful ambition to become a singer in order to tell the story of John Henry Sharp, an opera singer whose voice has mysteriously disappeared. He's in Mexico City when his voice fails him, and it's there that he meets Juana, an Indian-Mexican woman who offers him a chance to get his career back on track. But he's torn by the reappearance of Winston Hawes, the rich and famous conductor who first launched Sharp's career. When Hawes walks back in his life, it's not without devastating consequences.
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