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Tom Wolfe and James M. Cain

April 4, 2011

For many crime fiction fans James M. Cain will always be remembered for four seminal crime novels: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Serenade, Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity. The story of his career after these works is a sad one of bad reviews, works going out of print, historical research which led to nothing and publishers turning their back on him. Then, in 1965, help came from an unlikely source. In a review of Norman Mailer’s An American Dream, Tom Wolfe, the distinguished novelist and founder of the New Journalism, compared Mailer’s writing unfavourably to Cain’s:

Of course, Mailer cannot match Cain in writing dialogue, creating characters, setting up scenes or carrying characters through a long story. But he is keener than Cain in summoning up smells, especially effluvia. I think Norman Mailer can climb into the same ring as James M. Cain. He’s got to learn some fundamentals, such as how to come out of the corner faster. But that can be picked up. A good solid Cain-style opener goes like this:

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon….”

Although Wolfe’s praise did not lead to any significant reversal of fortune for Cain, it did contribute to the emergence of scholarly studies of Cain, who gradually has become recognised as one of the greatest and most important American Hardboiled crime writers. Ironically, Cain hated this genre label, and it was his attempt to break free of it that led to his career decline. By suggesting that an all-but-forgotten crime novelist is a better writer than a fashionable but (let’s face it) tedious and verbose literary figure, Wolfe implied that a genre writer can transcend the limitations of his genre whilst still being naturally recognised as a crime writer. To make this point, Wolfe quoted the now famous opening of The Postman Always Rings Twice, a novel which was an influence on Albert Camus’ The Stranger and on many film noirs of the 1940s and 50s. It might be tempting to write off Wolfe’s words as merely part of the endless and entertaining series of literary feuds that regularly occurred between authors such as Wolfe, Mailer, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote and John Updike, but Wolfe showed genuine appreciaton for Cain as his 1969 introduction to the Cain omnibus Cain x3 clearly shows. In it, Wolfe sincerely captures the joy of reading Cain and his power as a novelist:

Cain was one of those writers who first amazed me and delighted me when I was old enough to start looking around and seeing what was being done in American literature… I can see how complex Cain’s famous ‘fast-paced’ ‘hard-boiled’ technique really is.

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