WASHINGTON, August 3, 2012 — No one rivals James M. Cain as a scorched-earth storyteller. What we’d give to read a new book by him. Unfortunately, he died 35 years ago. Fortunately, come September, Titan Books and Hard Case Crimes will be releasing a new Cain book, his “lost final novel.”
I met Mr. Cain. And — maybe I should post this as a “spoiler alert” — unlike many of his characters, he was a nice guy.
Judging the book by its cover, The Cocktail Waitress drops the reader into a Cain setting: a smoky bar, a sultry waitress wearing a fetching outfit and balancing a tray of drinks, while looking over her shoulder with an expression that blinks in bold neon, “come close-go away.”
Cain wrote film noir before the term was even coined. In 1934, he gave American literature, one of its best book titles and opening lines: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
The only thing we know for sure is the time. Time for something to eat, a cup of java. Maybe a diner will show up in the distance. And maybe the diner will serve up a saucy waitress who happens to be the type who eyes that “Man Wanted” sign in the window with a literal intent.
We speak, of course, of Cain’s paperback of sexuality and violence, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
Cain’s novels are tough and gritty. Any guy with a pen and an erector set probably thinks he could knock out a novel like “Postman” in his spare time. It’s runs only about a hundred pages. A writer worth his salty margarita can scribble that much while waiting for a phone call.
“I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise,” Cain said. “I make no conscious effort to be tough or hard-boiled or grim or any of the things I’m usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write.”
I would add to that: as the character would write, speak and think. Some of Cain’s characters aren’t educated enough to write. Consequently, much of the action takes place inside their cranial cavities, usually late at night when the gauge on the liquor bottle is inching toward Empty.
When I met with Cain, he showed no impatience at my questions, which he must have heard hundreds of times in the 20 years between the1946 movie release of “Postman” and my informal Q&A.
Yet I had to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
“How did you come up with that fantastic title, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’”?
Easy, he explained. He was waiting for an envelope from a publisher which could contain a contract for a manuscript he had sent in, about a guy who gets thrown off a hay truck one day about noon,…well, you probably know the rest of the story.
Cain led his friend, screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, to the backyard. “I’ll hear the doorbell,” Cain assured him, “and I’ll know it’s him. You see, the postman always rings twice.”
The phrase may have rattled around in a moment of silence before Lawrence shouted, “That’s it! The title you’ve been looking for. And it fits as a metaphor.” Alfred Knopf publishers thought the current title, “Bar-B-Q,” was flat as a diner pancake. This new title had a catchy, ahem, “ring” to it.
The postman came. Rang twice. And the envelope bore good news.
Although “Postman” was his first successful novel, two of Cain’s subsequent books hit the silver screen ahead of it: “Double Indemnity” in 1944 and “Mildred Pierce” in 1945. It took a dozen years for “Postman,” but the movie deal couldn’t have been sweeter.
The brooding John Garfield would play the drifter, Frank Chambers, and the sizzling Lana Turner would be served up, like a blue plate special as Cora, the unhappy wife.
The film’s director, Tay Garnett, had delivered such powerful WWII motion pictures as “Bataan.” He said his chief problem with “Postman” would be “getting that much sex past the Hays Office censors.” His answer: “Dressing Lana in white somehow made everything she did less sensuous.” (I don’t know what he was thinking or drinking when he said that.)
An unexpected problem, however, was that Garnett and Garfield shared a fondness for the bottle, which delayed the start of filming for well over a week until the pair could return from their impromptu binge.
Born in Annapolis, Maryland, young Cain had discovered a great mentor in H. L. Menken, his co-worker at The Baltimore Sun. When Cain’s Hollywood career sputtered in 1948, Cain and his wife, former opera singer Florence Whitwell, moved back to Maryland.
I had met Mr. Cain shortly after his wife passed in 1966. Cain continued living and writing in Hyattsville, Maryland. The action of The Cocktail Waitress takes place in suburban Washington, D.C. in the 1950s. It was Cain’s work-in-progress when he suffered a fatal heart attack in October 1977. (Coincidentally, that same month, director Tay Garnett died on the opposite coast.)
James Mallahan Cain left behind an impressive body of work, which never goes out of print. In September, that body will grow a new limb.
I never review a book I haven’t read. So when “The Cocktail Waitress” hits town in September, one of the customers standing in line by the cash register will be yours truly.
Then again, I might order the book for delivery by mail. Just to hear the postman ring.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”
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