Re: RARA-AVIS: hardboiled: no crime/Cain/the author or the work?

From: Keith Alan Deutsch (
Date: 26 Apr 2000

Dear Mike,

As I said in one of my first postings, James M. Cain told me on a number of occasions that he did not consider himself a hard boiled writer; that he hated being listed along with Hammett and Chandler, etc. because his primary interest was not in crime or violence, but in passion and the relationship between a man and woman (usually a strong, untrustworthy woman) which might lead to crime and violence.

More importantly, despite his "hard boiled" short fiction ("Baby in the Ice Box"), Cain was proud of his scope as a novelist. There is corruption in Mildred Pierce, but whatever "crime" exists is less important than the driving force of Mildred's character.

Also look at Serenade, the C Major novel, the New Orleans historical saga
(Carnival?). Cain had many interests--music and opera among them; history; etc. that he developed into major elements of his novels. Even Butterfly, which has a kind of Tobacco Road white trash quality resonates with an intelligent, simmering sexuality that sets him apart, in my opinion, from the classic Black Mask hard boiled writers.

As a novelist, in my opinion, Cain's literary talent far excelled the typical Black Lizard novelists, who often brings in the same kind of late 40's to late 50's tawdry sexuality. Love those paperback covers from that time period---see Hard Boiled America.

Cain's versatility as a narrator, and the breadth and variety of the novels he produced (let alone the quantity) should be acknowledged before he gets dumped in with any "category" or any group of novelists--like Chandler and Hammett. Cain felt his talent was maligned and limited by critics who made easy, commercial observations to sell books to the public.

I love Hammett and I love Chandler. I like a lot of Jim Thompson. But none of these authors ever wrote in the variety of styles, on the variety of themes, in the variety of locales that Cain did. This is not meant as a value judgment. It is a factual observation.

Point One: Some novelists are "hard boiled" because that is primarily the way they wrote--and it doesn't mean they were necessarily good novelists.

There are plenty of mediocre to terrible hard boiled novels out there.

Which brings me to my Second Point: It may be a better critical paradigm to look at each work, rather than classify each author.

Some novelists I would not classify as "hard boiled novelists" even though they wrote some great hard boiled novels (Donald Westlake as Richard Stark/James M. Cain)

I wouldn't want to call The Thin Man a hard boiled novel. Hammett invented something new in that work. Although Hammett might be called the father of all hard boiled writers--except that Carroll John Daly made his entrance a year ahead of Hammett in Black Mask --that doesn't mean that The Thin Man is a hard boiled novel.

Enough said.


Mike Cunningham wrote:

> My memory is not what it used to be but did Mildred Pierce have any crime
> in it? I simply can't remember. It seems to me some of Cain's stuff was
> more melodrama than crime,

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