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To the end of the line with James M. Cain

November 12, 2008 |  2:09 pm

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James M. Cain, in the words of Otto Penzler, "wrote stories and novels so hard-boiled that he made the other pulp writers of his era seem like sissies." That era started in 1934, with the publication of his first novel, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," and continued in fine form through 1948, when he left Los Angeles to return to his home state, Maryland. (He continued writing in Maryland, but the work wasn't quite the same.)

Cain was the son of a university president, got a master's degree and then reported for the Baltimore Sun; after running an Army newspaper during World War I, he became a professor of journalism. Then he was managing editor of the New Yorker. It was certainly a respectable professional career, but he left it behind, when he was almost 40, to come to Hollywood in 1931.

It was here, as a not particularly successful screenwriter, that Cain found his footing as one of the hardest hard-boiled writers of fiction. How he came to write about the characters he did -- roadside restaurant owners, drifters, grifters and murderers -- seems mysterious. But Richard Schave will tell you that it began on L.A.'s skid row, where itinerant workers found themselves, getting work at the nearby produce mart and finding cheap rooms and lots of bars. The first sentence of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" reads, "They threw me off the hay truck about noon"; Schave wants to show you where these drifters landed ... after the jump.

Schave and his wife, Kim Cooper, run the eclectic Esotouric bus tour company; last weekend, they were both on board as Schave narrated the "Birth of Noir: James M. Cain's Southern California Nightmare." Stopping at 5th and Los Angeles streets, the tourists dutifully unloaded, peeking into a down-on-the-heels bar and gathering in the once-grand, long-dilapidated lobby of the King Edward Hotel, now an SRO. This neighborhood, Schave explained, was fascinating to Cain, who'd come to these downtown bars and soak up the atmosphere (and, maybe, whatever the bartender was serving).

Esotouric's tours focus on a variety of Southern California storytellers: There are tours about Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski and John Fante, and James Ellroy has narrated a tour of his own. But that's just literary; there is also a musical Tom Waits tour, and movies are a constant, ubiquitous presence.

The Cain tour included a DVD of movie clips while traveling to locations from the iconic films made from his books: Walter Neff's apartment in "Double Indemnity," the exterior for Mildred Pierce's Glendale house, even going down the street where Neff, hiding in the back seat, strangles Mr. Dietrichson as Dietrichson's wife drives. The stop at the Glendale train station (pictured), where Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson stage the murder's coverup, was pleasantly accompanied by coffee and cake. 

Cain's books "Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Mildred Pierce" are best known through their films; perhaps the novels themselves need to be rediscovered. The dialogue in the film "Double Indemnity" was written not by Cain but by Chandler and Billy Wilder ("they're stuck with each other ... to the end of the line.") The short Cain pieces I've read have their own brilliance of voice, brutality of language and the awful propulsion of his characters' desire.

Cain once said that he wrote about the most terrifying thing he knew: The wish that comes true. Me, I wish I had a James M. Cain novel to read.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Carolyn Kellogg

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