Thursday, November 12, 2009

Forgotten Books: SINFUL WOMAN by James M. Cain

This book surprised me in two ways. First, that a James M. Cain novel had appeared as a paperback original. And second, that any Cain novel could be considered a Forgotten Book, even by someone with a memory as faulty as mine.

“A Brand New Novel”, the cover proclaims, and a little research showed this to be no lie. This saddle-stitched digest from 1947, also known as The Avon Monthly Novel No. 1, is indeed the true first edition. The first hardcover was a Tower Books cheapie issued soon after.

So why is it forgotten? Well, it can’t be called great Cain. But it is fast, entertaining and (to me) a thoroughly satisfying read. And it is, after all, Cain, whose worst is better than many writers’ best.

Most of the Cain I’ve read was in first person, at which he was a master. Sinful Woman is told in breezy third person by an almost omniscient narrator, and Cain was clearly having fun with it.

The title role belongs to movie starlet Sylvia Shoreham, whose soon-to-be-ex husband (a penniless, conniving Baron with a silly accent) threatens to marry her clinically insane sister to retain control of her film career. Sylvia is not really very sinful. True, it’s discovered she spent time in a variety of motels with a variety of men, but none of this happens onstage, and no one much cares.

The male lead is Sheriff Parker Lucas, who dresses like Tom Mix and talks like Gary Cooper. Other major players include Dmitri, the tasteless money-grubbing producer who controls Sylvia’s contract; Tony, a gambling house proprietor who dresses like an undertaker; and George M. Layton, a go-getter life insurance agent on fire to protect his company’s interests after Sylvia’s is “accidentally” shot and killed at the gambling house.

If you think this cast sounds a bit over the top, you’re right. Cain based the novel on a play he’d written in 1938 called 7-11, which was quite likely a farce. Near as I can tell, the book was never made into a movie, which is a shame, because it seems perfectly suited. Cain’s working titles for the novel were “At the Galloping Domino” and “Sierra Moon”, both of which are more appropriate to the story. I suspect the more marketable title, Sinful Woman, was Avon's idea.

Though the plot revolves around the Baron’s murder, I can't really call this a murder mystery. No one is too interested in discovering who did it. They’re all promoting whatever wacky explanation meets their own interests. Nearing the end, when a Grand Jury convenes at The Galloping Domino to determine cause of death, I was thinking we’d never learn what really happened, and decided it didn’t matter. Watching the twists and turns of the plot and characters was enough for me.

But Cain came through after all, delivering a surprising solution - and happy ending - to the case. In a long string of bizarre notes, perhaps the most bizarre of all comes on the last page, when our male and female leads both announce they're enlisting in the army. This was, after all, 1947, and even novelists and paperback publishers had to do their part.

Below: The 1948 rack-size Avon paperback, which I suspect sold even better than the digest.


Laurie Powers said...

Great review. I haven't read any Cain, I'm ashamed to say.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This was a new one on me.

Mike Horvat said...

It's great to have my mystery horizon enlarged! I once had a copy of this, but, sadly, all the digests and pulps are gone now.

I'll look for the EQMM! Oh, boy; I know another famous writer!

Evan Lewis said...

Good to see you, Mike, if only in thumbnail. Not surprised to hear there's a Sinful Woman in your past.

Todd Mason said...

Once past the three or four that keep getting reprinted (THE BUTTERFLY is on the cusp there), Cain is largely out of print and pretty consistently. Pity.

Richard Prosch said...

I love those covers. Nice they glammed up the hard cover edition. Wouldn't want my upper-crust book shelf to seem too pulpy...