Recently, I’ve taken to pulling a book off the shelves at random rather than spending time choosing one, and so far, I have to say, it is paying off! Mum had marvellous taste in books – this is one I didn’t realise was a book although I recognised the title, as I had seen, and enjoyed, the black and white film made in 1945 starring Joan Crawford as Mildred, way back when Saturday afternoons on the TV were all about old movies. I believe it has also been made into a mini series for TV within the last 20 years – must have a look for that!
However, this is very definitely a book, and an extremely good example of it’s genre; like Steinbeck, he was writing American Depression era tales of real people dealing with real problems; and the three of his novels that were made into films became film noir classics; ‘The Postman always Rings Twice’, ‘Double Indemnity’, and this one. James Cain was a screenwriter by profession, specialising in gritty, hard boiled detective type stories, but unlike Raymond Chandler, his stories are told not from the detective’s point of view, but of the victims.
To ‘Mildred’. The book opens “In the Spring of 1931, on a lawn in Glendale, California…” The opening chapter is brilliantly descriptive without excessive adjectives, like the rest of the book, and introduces most of the main characters, as Mildred tells her feckless, unemployed and unfaithful husband, Bert, to leave. The enormity of this decision weighs hard on her, but she has been supporting the family with her baking skills anyway, and is determined to keep her young daughters, Veda and Ray, in the style to which she wishes them to be accustomed – even in financial extremity, she has managed to pay for piano lessons for Veda.
Looking for a job that is ‘suitable’ proves impossible and in the end she takes a waitressing job, something she had hoped not to have to do, mainly because of Veda’s pretensions – and Veda is a horrible snob to say the very least. Mildred hides her waitress uniform from her, knowing Veda will look down on her for it even though it is what is keeping food on the table.
But she is determined, and eventually builds a successful restaurant empire of her own – and has a passionate affair with a rich polo playing playboy, Monty, through whom Veda finally has access to the world she wants to live in. Everything Mildred does is for her pretentious, ambitious, and, frankly, nasty daughter, and through Veda, by the end of the novel, she has lost everything. Both of the men in her life also look down on her for the work she does, just like Veda, but all three are happy to be supported by her. It is a scathing, brutal picture that James Cain paints, of social ambition, class prejudice, and blackmail….and it is good, very good.
The prose is never flowery, but concise, dry, very observational in nature. I could not feel sorry for Mildred – she helped create the monster that was her downfall, but I felt for her. I really enjoyed this book, and read it in one sitting, finding it very hard to put down. And as always, I’m hoping to be able to gift Mum’s copy forward, so please get in touch either here or on my Instagram or Facebook accounts – if it has already been claimed, here’s an Amazon link to purchase it, and yes, your purchase will generate a tiny contribution to me!