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Remembering American Mercury Writer James M. Cain

Published by on October 27, 2010

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JAMES MALLAHAN CAIN died 33 years ago today. Cain (July 1, 1892 – October 27, 1977) was a celebrated American author and journalist. Although Cain himself vehemently opposed labeling, he is usually associated with the hardboiled school of American crime fiction and seen as one of the creators of the roman noir. Several of his crime novels inspired highly successful movies.

Early life

Cain was born into an Irish Catholic family in Annapolis, Maryland. The son of a prominent educator and an opera singer, he had inherited his love for music from his mother, but his high hopes of starting a career as a singer himself were thwarted when she told him that his voice was not good enough. After graduating from Washington College where his father, James W. Cain served as president, in 1910, Cain began working as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun.

Cain was drafted into the United States Army and spent the final year of World War I in France writing for an Army magazine.

Career

Back in the States, he continued working as a journalist writing editorials for the New York World and articles for The American Mercury. He briefly served as the managing editor of the New Yorker, but later turned to screenplays and finally to fiction.

Although Cain spent many years in Hollywood working on screenplays, his name only appears on the credits of three films: Algiers, Stand Up and Fight, and Gypsy Wildcat.

Cain’s first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934. Two years later the serialized Double Indemnity [which was also made into a classic film, with screenplay collaboration by the great Raymond Chandler -- Ed.] was published.

Cain made use of his love of music and of the opera in particular in at least three of his novels: Serenade (about an American opera singer who loses his voice and who, after spending part of his life south of the border, re-enters the States illegally with a Mexican prostitute in tow); Mildred Pierce (in which, as part of the subplot, the only daughter of a successful businesswoman trains as an opera singer); and Career in C Major, a short semi-comic novel about the unhappy husband of an aspiring opera singer who unexpectedly discovers that he has a better voice than she does (Cain’s fourth wife, Florence Macbeth, was a retired opera singer).

American Authors’ Authority

In July 1946, Cain wrote an article for Screen Writer magazine in which he proposed the creation of an American Authors’ Authority to hold writers’ copyrights and represent the writers in contract negotiations and court disputes. This idea was dubbed the “Cain plan” in the media. The plan was denounced as Communist by some writers, who formed the American Writers Association to oppose it. Although Cain worked vigorously to promoted the Authority, it did not gain widespread support and the idea died.

Personal life

Cain was married to Mary Clough in 1919. The marriage ended in divorce and he promptly married Elina Sjösted Tyszecka. Although Cain never had any children of his own, he was close to Elina’s two children from a prior marriage. In 1944 Cain married film actress Aileen Pringle, but the marriage was a tempestuous union and dissolved in a bitter divorce two years later. Cain married for the fourth time to Florence Macbeth, an opera singer. Their marriage lasted until her death in 1966.

Cain continued writing up to his death at the age of 85. However, the many novels he published from the late 1940s onward never rivaled his earlier successes.

Quotation

“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.”

(from the preface to Double Indemnity)

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