Raising Cain: The work of James M. Cain
Hammett, Chandler, Cain: the modern mystery thriller starts with them. They are the godfathers of that sensibility that would come to be called noir which would, in time, overflow the printed page and onto the stage, the big screen, and eventually even to television. Identified primarily with mysteries, the concept of flawed human beings ethically tripping and stumbling in a moral No Man’s Land, equidistant between Right and Wrong, Good and Bad would bleed across genre lines. There would be noir Westerns (Blood on the Moon, 1948), noir war movies (Attack!, 1956), noir horror (The Body Snatcher, 1945), even noir melodramas like Cain’s own Mildred Pierce, adapted for the screen in 1945.
But they all started with what Hammett, Chandler, and Cain did on the page, and each provided an evolutionary step which took what had once been usually dismissed as a flyweight genre dedicated to colorful private investigators and clever puzzles, and turned it into literature’s dark star: stories that were less about cleverness than they were about recognizable, identifiable, relatable corruption.
Hammett came first, writing five novels between 1929 and 1934, but it was his third – The Maltese Falcon – which arguably had the greatest impact on the thriller genre. Falcon’s hero, private eye Sam Spade, redefined the P.I. hero. This was no intellectual superman, like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, no bit of Agatha Christie whimsy. Spade was working class, a plodding pay-by-the-day dick, a knight errant loyal to a battered code of honor who realized there wasn’t always a happy ending, and that justice came with a price – even to the just.
But there was still a touch of the exotic to Spade, and, in fact, much of Hammett’s mystery fiction i.e. The Glass Key, The Thin Man. Hard-boiled and working class as Spade was, he was still in a world of not exactly run-of-the-mill hoods chasing after a jewel-encrusted statue.
Raymond Chandler introduced us to P.I. Philip Marlowe in the 1939 novel, The Big Sleep, and took him through seven more novels including the unfinished Poodle Springs in 1959 (Robert B. Parker would complete the novel in 1989). Marlowe was a more evolved Sam Spade: more contemplative, more philosophical, and, for that reason, a bit more world-weary and his battered code of honor even more battered.
But James M. Cain did them both one better.