Mildred Pierce – James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce

James M Cain

1941

Okay, it’s not technically ‘crime’, but it fits within the overall noir genre and the 1945 film adaption with Joan Crawford (which I would recommend) includes a murder angle which is absent from the book. And it fits in well with my post about Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress. So there we go.

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Mildred Pierce is, along with The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, one of the main works for which James M. Cain is mostly remembered. I gave it my first reading recently (having already seen the aforementioned film version), and found it to be a surprisingly more engaging read than either of the other two pillars of Cain’s bibliography.

If Postman… is Cain’s masterwork for displaying his skills at portraying a sinister, hardboiled world driven by lust, Mildred Pierce is where he shows he could create characters with psychological depth and a story which doesn’t rely on shock or sensation to keep readers interested.

In short, Mildred Pierce tells the story of a young woman who, after her husband leaves for the comforts of another woman, begins to build up her own business in the Depression-struck era of the 1930s so she can provide the life of luxury and status demanded by her spoiled daughter, Veda. Several men come and go into her life throughout the story, which spans a time frame of several years, each with their own backhand plans and intentions. It ends with a series of betrayals which risks leaving Mildred in a state of permanent financial and emotional ruin.

On summary, it may not sound like the sort of gripping material which Cain was known for, but the devil is, as always, in the detail. Digging a bit deeper into it, it shares a number of traits with Cain’s other works. Lust and desire are still present in spades (Mildred certainly isn’t conservative in her approach to men, who equally share her views on having a good time), and Mildred’s desire to make something of herself rests comfortably next to the character of Cora in Postman…as well as the character of Joan Crawford in Cain’s posthumous work, The Cocktail Waitress (reviewed here). But it’s Mildred’s struggle to thrive legitimately in a bleak world which sets the book apart from the others. A woman who has her husband leave her when the only income she has to make is in making pies to sell to neighbours for a couple dollars at a time, followed by getting a job that she has to keep secret from her eldest daughter for the fear of shame and anger she knows it will bring out from her. The daughter who herself is, for lack of any other suitable words, a bitch. Cain’s antagonist here isn’t a lonely drifter or sophisticated criminal, but is rather the person closest to the lead character. No level of greed or selfishness could really break the emotion that Mildred has for her daughter (even come the ending of the book, there is the sense that it won’t be the end for the two characters), and it completely drives the story upwards, to the point where it becomes frustrating for the readers to see how Mildred continues to indulge and tolerate her daughter. But then that’s probably the point – any other outsider would toss a person like that as far away from them as they could. But as a mother, that is the one option which isn’t available to Mildred.

Mildred Pierce may not sound like the sort of material which might match the shorter, leaner, and nastier works which Cain (not to mention Chandler et al) produced, but it retains a distinctly noir feel and shares all the themes and traits which made Cain the writer he was. A rare level of emotional depth adds to the mixture, and is a surprisingly compelling read.

Oh, and HBO made a 5-part miniseries out of it a few years ago, which wasn’t at all too shabby…

 

mildred-pierce-kate-winslet

 

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