James M Cain: lost story by ‘poet of the tabloid murder’ discovered in Congress library

5 days ago

A New York editor and literary detective is celebrating the discovery and release of an unpublished short story by James M Cain, one of the greats of American noir, a “poet of the tabloid murder” whose works made famous on film include The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce.

“For all the work that you do,” said Andrew Gulli, editor-in-chief of the Strand Magazine, “like 2% of the time you hit the jackpot. I just feel so good. It’s worth it.”

Cain died in his native Maryland in 1977, aged 85. In tribute, the Washington Post echoed the critic Edmund Wilson’s famous verdict quoted above, saluting Cain’s “gruff, direct style that embodied the forcefulness of uncluttered colloquial speech and gave it the unobtrusive grace of good poetry”.

The newly discovered story, Blackmail, is set in Washington DC and concerns a blind Korean war veteran tormented by his sister-in-law. As published, it is illustrated by Clare Dean, a Briton in the US.

It begins: “In a rough board shack on a one-block alley in south-east Washington DC, a blind man emerged from a bedroom and groped along a wall. He was dressed neatly, in dark hat, suit, and overcoat, as if to go out for the evening, and though a big, silent shadow followed every move he made, he asked no help.”

Gulli made the discovery simply by asking the Library of Congress to look in its Cain papers.

James M Cain.
James M Cain. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Feature

“I’ll do all this research in archives,” Gulli said, “and many, many times I’ll be disappointed, because I’ll find that something has been published, I’ll find that something is incomplete.”

In the case of Cain, Gulli received 150 pages. Sorting through them, he found the unfamiliar title and story, which he dates to the late 1950s.

Gulli also found “some plot points for a story that was kind of similar to Double Indemnity.

“So you’re looking at the mind of James M Cain, and you realise he’s not mortal like the rest of us, when you look at his notes and his attention to detail. From looking at his notes about other works that were published, you find somebody who’s nuanced, obsessive, a perfectionist, somebody who had a combination of creativity with a workmanlike way of creating a story.

“I think that’s why he’s different from any of the pulp authors who are very popular. Cain is like the lyrical poet of the noir movement.”

Gulli puts Cain close behind Raymond Chandler at the top of the genre, but thinks Blackmail stayed unpublished because Cain “felt his best days were past after Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

“It’s fortunate for us that we’re able to publish it. But I think it’s very sad that he had a very long life compared to all the other noir authors but he didn’t feel appreciated for the last 30 years, because he felt the sales and critical reception to his later novels were just not there. I think that created a crisis in confidence.”

In the afterlife, Cain does have something some writers do not: a cooperative estate.

Sometimes, Gulli says, “I’ll find something and then I’ll ask permission from the estate to publish it and the estate will say, ‘No, we don’t want it to be published.’ As you can imagine, those are not pleasant conversations to have.”

But the Cain estate “were just wonderful, wonderful people” and Gulli is confident readers will agree Blackmail deserves to be published.

“I’ve looked at some [unpublished stories] and I’ve said to myself, ‘No, no, I’m not doing any favours. This can just stay in a dusty folder somewhere. It doesn’t deserve the light of day. But this is a very good story.”

Readers who don’t know Cain, Gulli said, might see Blackmail as “an excellent introduction to his work, because in many respects it’s representative but it’s also something that has a twist at the end which is far removed from his more harder-edged, very cynical work, his world of people struggling with problems of their own making, or the problems life has thrown at them. And, more often than not, making the wrong choices.”

In the newly discovered story, a friend of the blind Korea veteran describes how “the grenade that cost him his eyes cost me my guts, see? My courage. My will to live.

“Not him, though. Blood, eyes, everything he had was streaming down on the ground. But he drug me back to the ditch. Back to a place we could lay in till they came and got us that night. OK, maybe he pulled stuff before he went in the army. But I figure it was all wiped out by what poured out on the ground that day. What he left in Korea.”

Gulli said: “This is more nuanced and it has a little bit of idealism. But you still have some of the grittiness. Some of the characters are very hard-edged, some of the characters are just exploitative. So for people who like James M Cain, there’s a lot of the old vintage: clean turns of phrase, dialogue, action. But it also has a couple of surprises in store.”

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