August 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Californian Noir

In an age when Hollywood is one of the loudest voices against media piracy, it’s easy to forget that the film industry of America only settled there to outrun the camera patent laws of the East Coast. The corruption of modern Hollywood--sometimes moral or intellectual corruption, sometimes thorough illegality--was there from the beginning.

This atmosphere of corruption has made for some great books. The Hollywood novel is a well-established genre with a number of undoubted classics. Furthermore, the influx of money and fame the movies brought to California, permanently altering the landscape, created a broader society rich in seedy detail. Putting aside the novels by and about failed or failing screenwriters and agents, the crime novels of California are among the best produced. Look at the writers who made California their primary setting: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald (aka Ken Millar), James M. Cain, Walter Mosley, James Ellroy…

Many of the writers in that list wrote or write private-eye stories. However, crime is a big genre. One of its more fascinating subgenres is not typical solve-the-crime puzzles, but what has come to be known as the psychological crime novel. These are the stories of people who are either criminals themselves, or live their lives always on the edge of criminality. This brings us to the work of James Mallahan Cain and Horace McCoy. Both are of particular interest to this column because they each produced a pair of wonderful, bleak novellas.

James M. Cain (1892-1977) is best known for a quartet of amazing, black and disturbing novels, three of which have been famously filmed (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce), and the fourth of which is just a little bit bonkers (Serenade). Frequently inspired by the sort of true-crime stories that proliferated in the sleazy press, his style has an immediate, conversational tone that belies the great skill he possessed. Perfectly poised between great literature and compelling trash, he has inspired many other writers and filmmakers. Perhaps the most famous deliberate imitation of his work is Albert Camus’s The Stranger.

Cain himself said he wrote “of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination. …I think my stories have some quality of the opening of a forbidden box.”

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934): All the elements are here: the desperate, out-of-luck hero; the sexy, trashy femme fatale; the oblivious cuckold of a husband; the decaying Depression-era landscape; the slow but unavoidable progression toward murder; the betrayal between lovers. All the most effective elements of Cain’s work were already here in his first book, fully formed. The John Garfield-Lana Turner movie is well worth viewing, but shows how important tone can be. The film’s conclusion is almost word-for-word that of the book, but replaces an atmosphere of grim resignation with one of almost hysterical atonement.

Double Indemnity (1943): Someone has described this as the only exciting novel about insurance. It even manages to overcome having a femme fatale whose surname is Nirdlinger. It’s a classic version of the quest to commit the perfect murder: an insurance investigator and his mistress try to knock off her husband. If it looks like murder, they’re doomed. If it looks like suicide, no money. But if it looks like an accident, his life insurance policy pays off double. As all the blurbs say, not everything goes according to plan.

Horace McCoy (1897-1955) wrote a lot of screenplays and a tiny handful of novels. Weirdly, his novels are cinematic, thrilling and memorable while his screenplays are frequently dull or uninspired. His own attempts to become an actor failed; he became, in turn, a bouncer, a sports journalist, a pulp writer and a screenwriter. His two best books are also his shortest.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935): The marathon dancing contests that exploited young people’s need for cash were a bizarre fragment of Depression history. McCoy’s first novel is a vivid exploration of the consequences of one of these grueling competitions. You know it’s about more than dancing when the first page of the book begins with,“I stood up. For a moment I saw Gloria again, sitting on that bench on the pier. The bullet had just struck her in the side of the head; the blood had not even started to flow. The flash from the pistol still lighted her face.”

I Should Have Stayed Home (1938): The only one of the books discussed here that actually concerns itself directly with Hollywood, it’s a formidable, compressed story of ambition and disappointment. Ralph Carston and Mona Matthews are a couple of kids who want to make it big in the movies. Though you know they won’t make it, at least on their own terms, the exact nature of their failure and its unfolding is compelling. One of the best and bleakest of the great Hollywood novels.

Anyone interested in launching into a new reading career in this sort of fiction is well advised to get their hands on a copy of Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and '40s, one of those expensive but nifty books put out by the Library of America. It contains Postman and Horses, as well as four other wonderful slabs of gritty nastiness. Highly recommended.