Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Encore Review: 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.


A said...

Sounds like a ripping good yarn.

Charles Gramlich said...

I didn't know about this book but I love that title.

P.M. said...

The cover of the rack size version is fantastic. Thanks for the review.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Never heard of this one either. Great title and cover.

Frank Loose said...

Thanks for the review. Cain doesn't get much press these days. A real shame. I read SINFUL WOMAN a couple years ago and while it isn't top tier Cain, i enjoyed it a lot. I was surprised by its "quirkiness."

When someone mentions Cain, the books that immediately jump to mind are his classics: Double Indemnity, Postman, Butterfly, Mildred Pierce. But, Cain wrote some others that are terrific and would also qualify as forgotten.

Among them is a book with a similar title to the book you reviewed, called JEALOUS WOMAN. Keyes, the insurance inspector from Double Indemnity, makes an appearance and plays a key role. The story is a bit zany like SINFUL WOMAN and a lot of fun to read.

Another book, THE EMBEZZLER, is more along the lines of what you expect from Cain but with an ending that comes as a pleasant surprise. My favorite of his "second tier" books is LOVE"S LOVELY COUNTERFEIT, which is about gangsters fighting for control in the Midwest. It reads very much like the crime books that Peter Rabe wrote. I thoroughly enjoyed that one. I think you would, too, if you haven't already read it.

Evan Lewis said...

I think Jealous and Sinful were reissued not long ago in a single volume, because both are rather short and published around the same time by Avon.

I know I have an old Avon pb of Love's Lovely too, but can't remember reading it. I'll dig it out. Cain is always refreshing.

Cap'n Bob said...

Good review, as usual, but joining the Army in 1947 is an odd act. After WWII the services discharged tens of thousands of vets and probably didn't need many recuits, what with no war and all.

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