RARA-AVIS: context

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 01 May 2000

The discussion about James M. Cain served as a reminder to me about how easy it is to overlook the context of the creation. A common view of Cain's novels when they appeared was that they were "smutty." Situations and words now common on every sitcom and soap opera would have gotten a bookseller arrested for over half the last century.

When I first read Cain, I was very impressed with SERENADE. It was about 1960 and I was 14 and my friend the bookseller gave me a big grin and said
"let me know what you think of this one." My reaction to the novel was completely colored by the "oh my God" factor. I have reread other Cain several times but never SERENADE and I wonder how well it would hold up now that the plot situation is no longer "daring," a favorite code word of blurb writers.

The "smutty" perception was clearly articulated by the Chandler letter quote that someone included recently. I wonder if there was more to it than an English public school primness. Thinking back to 1935 when POSTMAN leaped onto best seller lists and Chandler was struggling to make ends meet with pulp stories, it might have seemed a cheap, tawdry way to sell books rather than an innovation. Maybe, maybe not.

In later years, Howard Browne was apologetic about the lesbian stuff in HALO IN BRASS.

In reading the old stuff, the thing that most often makes me cringe is the abuse of women. I can still appreciate the story if it is well done but the off-hand slapping around some detectives routinely dole out to any woman within reach makes my skin crawl. Yeah, I know it fit the context of the time and of the characters, perhaps, but it still bothers me.

For those who really want to be challenged in this department, try reading the work of one of Chandler's best friends Cleve Adams. He wrote the true, distilled hard stuff. His main detective Rex McBride makes Mike Hammer seem like a granola eating liberal. I am convinced that Adams did everything he could to make him as unsympathetic and unlikable as possible. It is too far over the line to be an accident. Cringe? Let me quote an oft-quoted line from McBride: "What this country goddamned well needs is a Gestapo."

Richard Moore

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