The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction by James M. Cain

I am in awe of James M. Cain. I have read Mildred Pierce, but I don’t think I have read his other very famous novels. Seen the movies, yes, but as those of you have read and seen Mildred Pierce (the original with Joan Crawford) the two have very little to do with the other. Both terrific, but quite different.

What has happened to short stories? I am old enough to remember when magazines (wait – you mean I’m old enough to remember magazines!) printed short stories in each issue. By the time I came along they were romance stories in the women’s magazines my mother subscribed to; in the 1920’s through the 1940’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, The American Mercury, The Bookman, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and dozens of pulp magazines published short stories by the very best of contemporary authors. (This is being written on the day we learned that the Washington Post has been sold to Amazon – what’s next? The New York Times??)

Maybe we associate short stories with those anthologies we had in school; maybe we just don’t think short stories are cool. They should be popular now. They are perfectly suited for mobile consumption. The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owners all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create. Poe’s definition of the short story remains as true today as when he wrote it: “a story is a thing that can be read in one sitting.” If he were writing today he might rephrase it: “…in one hour on the tread mill.”

Roy Hoopes, the writer of the introduction to this collection of short stories and one novella states that Cain was essentially a writer of short fiction. The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are really novellas, according to Hoopes. Cain himself wrote, “In one respect … it [the short story] is greatly superior to the novel, or at any rate, the American novel.”

Cain was from Maryland and most of his early work was placed in the East. He wasn’t successful in selling this fiction and, as a result, taught school, worked as a newspaper reporter, and served in France during WWI. The characters in these stories were “homely characters” who spoke in “ain’ts, brungs, and fittens.”
He was good friends with H. L. Mencken, who is regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

A very controversial figure, Mencken commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians, pseudo-experts, and the temperance movement. He was skeptical of economic theories and particularly critical of anti-intellectualism, bigotry, populism, fundamentalist Christianity, creationism, organized religion, and the existence of God.

An outspoken admirer of German philosopher Nietzsche, he was not a proponent of representative democracy, which he believed was a system in which inferior men dominated their superiors. During and after World War I, he was sympathetic to the Germans, and was distrustful of British propaganda. However, he also referred to Adolf Hitler and his followers as “ignorant thugs.” Mencken, through his wide criticism of actions taken by government, has had a strong impact on the libertarian movement.

Cain followed Mencken’s lead in the essays he wrote for Mencken’s publications. He also started writing successful short fiction. He decided to go to Hollywood where he got a job writing screenplays. He gradually found the West, especially California, appealing. One of the principal forms of recreation in the 1930’s was taking car drives. He and his family took hundreds of trips to the canyons, valleys, beaches, and all the other California attractions. He decided that California was the natural background for his writings.

His two greatest influences on his literary style were Ike Newton and Ring Lardner. Ike Newton was a bricklayer who had laid a walk on the campus of Washington College while he talked to twelve-year-old James Cain for hours. Cain later used Ike’s speech to create the dialogue in his stories. One of the most recognizable traits of much of Ring Lardner’s writing, both in his columns and in his fiction, is the use of the American slang vernacular.

Several of the short stories were truly haunting, making a remarkable impression on me. Many of the stories followed Cain’s basic theme – two people who conspire in committing a crime, but mistrust lead to betrayal. “The Baby in the Icebox” was reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice in that the setting is a gas station, one of the characters is a drifter, and the husband is a jerk. “The Girl in the Storm” is melancholy and ironic. “The Birthday Party” was a poignant coming-of-age tale. Not all the stories have unhappy endings; in fact, the novella Money and the Woman (The Embezzler) went about 180◦ away from the way I thought it was going.

This was an excellent collection of first-rate short stories. Please bring back the short story; after reading this book, I am very nostalgic for the genre.


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Filed under Fiction, Mystery

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