Stephen and James—True Love Always


Leave it to Stephen King to have a bromance with a dead man. The master of horror can’t seem to resist an opportunity to praise James M. Cain, author of such classic crime novels as Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. In an open letter to his fans last year, King quoted Cain to defend the changes CBS had made to his novel Under the Dome when adapting it for television. Apparently, a reporter had bemoaned the changes made to some of Cain’s books when they were adapted into (now iconic) films noir. Pointing to the shelf behind him, Cain replied, “The movies didn’t change them a bit…. Every word is the same as when I wrote them.” And citing the first sentence of Cain’s Postman as exemplary, King once told The Atlantic that the great line “plunges you into a specific time and place.” King’s latest best-seller, Mr. Mercedes, released in June, is as hard-boiled as any Cain tale. King dedicates the novel to him (“Thinking of James M. Cain”) and includes the brilliant opening sentence from Postman: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

King isn’t alone in his praise. “No one has ever stopped reading in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books,” The Saturday Review of Literature once noted. Literary critic Edmund Wilson touted Cain as the finest of the “poets of the tabloid murder,” and Cain’s current champion, King, has also opined, “Everyone should study him in writing class, instead of the marsh gas they put out for us to admire.” Ironically, what Cain really wanted to do was sing; writing was his “consolation prize” after his mother, a professional opera singer, told him his voice wasn’t good enough. As a young reporter, Cain worked for The New Yorker and H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury, but after deciding he wanted to be a novelist, he realized he couldn’t find his voice in New York. “I couldn’t manage the New York idiom,” he told The Paris Review near the end of his life. “If you can’t write like New York, you have no business living in New York.” In 1931 Cain moved to California, where he mastered the local lingo and, he said, “everything broke for me.”

The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain’s breakthrough first novel, was published in 1934. It was a runaway best-seller—and the subject of an obscenity trial in Boston. According to Cain, Postman is the story of “a couple of jerks who discover that murder, though dreadful enough morally, can be a love story, too.” The idea that any person, under the right circumstances, can commit murder is the major theme of Cain’s works. His plots are pretty simple: An easygoing lunkhead falls for a pair of legs and a tight sweater and commits a crime to please this hot number, who eventually betrays him. As Gary Giddens wrote in The Nation, “The real measure of Cain’s kinkiness is not to be found in his standard kill-the-husband plot or the orgasmic glee that accompanies the killings, but in the born-again conviction with which his outlaws stride into hell.” Thirty-five years after his 1977 death, a lost Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress, was published. The cover featured a quote from Cain’s biggest fan, Stephen King: “A true rarity: a reader’s novel that’s also a literary event.”

SHOP_Mr-MercedesMr. Mercedes is King’s 50th novel and his first full-length crime fiction. There is nothing supernatural about Mr. Mercedes, which concerns a retired detective in a race against time to prevent a serial killer from perpetrating another mass murder. It is a taut (for King, anyway) 448-page thriller as tough and brutal as anything from Cain. It’s such an exciting departure that I hope King’s infatuation with the noir style continues. And perhaps the book’s dedication to Cain will bring new readers to his novels. Dialogue like this, from the start of a love scene in Postman, certainly deserves to be read: “I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lip so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.”

Photo courtesy of Emilio Flores/Everett