Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Forgotten Gem Returns: A BAD WOMAN by James M. Cain

Back in 1947 Avon published an original James M. Cain novel called Sinful Woman, which I reviewed here a couple three years ago. Well, it's back, and given new legs with a new title from Chalk Line Books.

Now known as A Bad Woman, this book really can't be called great Cain. But it's fast, entertaining and a thoroughly satisfying read. And it is James M. Cain, whose worst work is better than many writers' best.

Most of the Cain books I've read were told in first person, at which he was a master. This one is told in breezy first person by an almost omniscient narrator, and Cain clearly had 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.


Cap'n Bob said...

By 1947 the war was over and Korea wouldn't start for three more years. Not much of a sacrifice to join up then.

Evan Lewis said...

Good point. Maybe Cain wrote this a few years earlier, and finally gave up on hardcover publication.

Rick Robinson said...

what Bob said. I think Cain was a very uneven author, a couple of good ones, the rest mediocre.