The only other Cain novel I have read is Mildred Pierce; an excellent novel but an enormous surprise for someone who had seen the movie. The two pieces of art have very little in common. Maybe 25% of the novel made it into the movie. I won’t spoil anything for anyone, but if you have seen the movie, read the book and then compare and contrast. However, I have seen The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity; I need to read those books. Lord only knows what Hollywood did with those books; although Raymond Chandler wrote the screen play for Double Indemnity and Billy Wilder directed it.
When I saw that “the lost final novel” by Cain had been published, I ordered it immediately and read it in a single sitting. As the editor, Charles Ardai, quoted The Saturday Review of Literature, “No one has ever stopped reading in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books.”
The book isn’t a masterpiece, like his other books. It was written when he was 83, two years before his death. Ardai explains how the book was edited: it was drawn together by Ardai from multiple manuscripts and notes found in places thousands of miles apart. Ardai had to choose from conflicting but similar scenes, decide how events unfolded chronologically, and even choose from a variety of contradicting dialogue, names, and passages.
This undoubtedly accounts for distracting episodes, loose ends, and confusing cultural references that made me wonder, exactly, is this supposed to be taking place. For instance, Joan, the novel’s femme fatale, tells us that she has bought a color TV for her rent house so that her tenants’ child can watch Howdy Doody. Howdy Doody went off the air in 1960 (although it was also a pioneer in early color production, since it was broadcast by NBC which was owned by RCA). However, Joan and Earl leave for their honeymoon from Kennedy Airport and that airport was known as Idlewild Airport until 1963.
Details, details. The important thing about the book is that Cain gives us his own brand of explorations of greed, passion and murder. As he did in Mildred Pierce, he explores the line between desire and lust, responsibility and sacrifice. It is definitely worth the read.
In the New York Times Book Review, Michael Connelly writes “the self-knowledge Joan possesses is perfect and some of the best stuff Cain ever put down on paper.” He cites this passage:
“So I went up, took off my things, lay down and closed my eyes. Then at last I knew the truth: My beautiful dream, that I’d worked and schemed and plotted for, and then at last had made come true, in one ghastly, dreadful moment, had exploded in my face. . . .
“And then at last I began to realize how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true.”
Connelly concludes, “No author was better at that sort of grim realization of the price of one’s desires than James M. Cain.”
Spoiler Alert: Our younger readers may not have the knowledge necessary to understand the gut-twisting ending. The afterword points this out. Those of us who were here in the 60s remember vividly the subject of Thalidomide. It was prescribed for morning sickness and a sleep-aid. Joan is given the drug in London to help her sleep. We learn that Joan is pregnant and is looking forward to her child’s birth. She knows the girl (she’s sure it is a girl) will be a beauty. We know better. Plus, Thalidomide was used by her lover to kill her husband. When the police learn that she had access to Thalidomide ….