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Onyx reviews: The Complete Crime Stories by James M. Cain
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 06/10/2015
These days, James M. Cain is known primarily for the movies based on his
short novels Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman
Always Rings Twice. These aren't exactly crime stories, per se.
They involve people who make mistakes or commit offenses and then are forced to
face the consequences.
Many of the tales in this new collection don't involve crimes at all, not
even peripherally. In several of them, men and women come together
under unlikely circumstances and fall in love at first sight, often to the
chagrin of other interested parties.
One of the longer stories, "Career in C Major," is
about a man who decides to get even with his cold-hearted wife by trumping her
in the one area she prides: her supposed ability to sing. He finds a mentor and
a tutor and, under an assumed name, builds a reputation singing opera. It's an
overlong story that stretches credibility to the limits. Readers are expected to
believe that a man can take on these challenging songs and parts with little
experience and minimal
preparation. There's also the question of the couple's children, who are rarely accounted for during their parents' respective antics. Cain
himself apparently aspired to be an opera singer until he was informed
quite bluntly that his voice wasn't up to it. The story is, perhaps, wish
fulfillment on the author's part.
Even when there's death in a story's title, it doesn't mean there's a crime
involved. "Death on the Beach" is about a swimming accident, not a
murder. A couple of the stories feature hobos, including one with a conscience,
albeit too late—guilty conscience is a recurring theme in these
stories. Another story takes place during a flash flood when two people are
thrust together and misunderstandings ensue. The women in these tales usually have hearts of
gold, except when they're trying to separate men from their gold, and the men are generally captivated by them.
Some stories, such as "Mummy's a
Barfly," verge on melodramatic. Cain's bad men (or women), usually get their due, or else have a change of heart. Only
one story, "Coal Black,"
flirts with the supernatural.
Among the more effective stories, "The Birthday Party," is a
simple tale of a teenaged boy who doesn't want to attend a neighborhood girl's birthday
party and concocts a lie to excuse his absence, only to get caught in a
most embarrassing manner when he changes his mind.
Another strong story is the lead-off tale, "The Baby in the
Icebox," in which a tiger is used as an attempted murder weapon. The
title sets up certain expectations in the reader that Cain uses quite
effectively. "The Taking of
Montfaucon," a story set during a WW I battle in France, feels more like a
personal essay than a work of fiction, and it doesn't really lead anywhere
except to disappointment caused by bad luck.
The other long story, which concludes the collection, is the awkwardly titled
"The Money and the Woman (The Embezzler)." A banker falls in love with
the wife of a man who has been stealing from the institution he oversees. He
goes to great lengths to help her cover up the crime so their children won't
bear the shame of having a father with a criminal record. But is he being led
down the garden path? The story cleverly lures readers back and forth on this
These stories date from the depression era through the 1960s, and their vintage
shows quite often. The logistics of banking from that era, for example, as revealed in the
final story, will seem totally foreign to contemporary readers.
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