Mildred Pierce: James M. Cain

Part of my passion for reading crime fiction is going back and reading some of the earlier hardboiled crime novels and detective novels that influenced and shaped the genre. James M. Cain (1892 to 1977) is one such writer. He’s better known for some of his earlier works like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. He was a prolific writer. Having read all three of his most popular works, there’s one theme he keeps coming back to repeatedly: the pursuit of something that is unattainable.

Book cover for Mildred Pierce by James. M. Cain is vintage with woman on frontMy favorite of his three popular works is Mildred Pierce. The story is set during the Depression and follows Mildred Pierce as she goes from homemaker to a successful businesswoman. Her life, her loves and her relationships make up the bulk of the story. Much of the emphasis is placed on Mildred’s relationship with her daughter Veda. The two have a difficult and tempestuous relationship. This is probably one of the most memorable mother/daughter relationship novel I’ve read in recent times. The pages literally turned themselves because the story was so moving and gripping.

The novel spans about a decade. The setting is 1930’s California. The Pierce’s like everyone else lost their wealth and are in financial straits. The loss of wealth makes Mildred prideful and stubborn as she clings to her place in society. For example: at the start she finds it beneath her and humiliating to work as a waitress and fears her daughter’s condemnation.

I liked the ending even though I wasn’t sure where the denouement was headed. The supportive cast in here was great. Mrs Gessler was the neighbor and mother like figure providing Mildred with shrewd business advice. Then there’s Bert, the ex-husband that Mildred would go running to when her life would get into a bind. I liked him better by story’s end. Then there’s Monty, Mildred’s lover who I can’t really say anything nice about. He had Mildred thinking he was the key to her daughter’s heart but in the end he had no morals.

The writing is in third person narrative. The pacing was great. Characters were all memorable. Tone of the story can be dark, depressive and tension filled. Novel length: 307 printed pages. What was beyond Mildred’s reach was the love of her daughter:

The one living thing she had loved had turned on her repeatedly,with tooth and fang, and now had left her without so much as a kiss or a pleasant good-bye. Her only crime, if she had committed one, was that she had loved this girl too well.

Its been 72 years since Mildred Pierce was published so pardon me for writing out a summary review to a story that is well-known. Its seen only two adaptations with Joan Crawford in the starring role in 1945 and Kate Winslet in HBO’s mini-series in 2011. Just two adaptations compared to the seven adaptations of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The story of Mildred Pierce was dark, riveting and unputdownable.

Pic Credit: pietschreuders

16 thoughts on “Mildred Pierce: James M. Cain”

  1. I always felt so badly for the younger daughter, Moire. Mildred couldn’t even get her name right, never saw the value in her and was relieved beyond belief that Veda was spared whatever illness was going around. It’s been a long time since I read this, but the quote you provided about Veda is the heart and soul of this story. Joan Crawford was superb and I haven’t seen Kate Winslet’s version yet. Something to look forward to.

    1. yes that was awful re the younger daughter. The irony of it all was that all the love and devotion she gave to Veda was never returned. Yet she still kept trying to attain through money and other materialistic means.

  2. The movie with Joan Crawford is very good though somewhat depressing. I will have to read the book and see how they compare. Nice review.

  3. The mini series was my first experience of Mildred…was very good, but I will go back and read the book now.

  4. I love the old cover, and if I ever get to my plan of reading older books, I’ll definitely read some Cain. Thanks for the interesting review, Keishon.

  5. I love the classic crime novels, too, although I haven’t gotten around to reading James M. Cain yet. Probably because I’m not a huge Double Indemnity (the movie) fan.

    1. Tasha: Double Indemnity and this book are completely different in style and story. Much different James. M. Cain. More literary than hardboiled and for some reason it’s labeled as such. Go figure.

  6. I’m unfamiliar with this book of Cain’s only having read Postman. I ought to read more early stuff from the genre, but whether I’ii find the time is another thing. Great piece and one to bear in mind, thanks

  7. Keishon, I haven’t read anything by James M. Cain yet though I’m familiar with all the three titles. Nor have I seen any of the film or television adaptations. I’m going to read the books first. Thanks for a very fine review.

    1. Thanks Prashant. We are in the same boat. I’ve never watched any of the TV adaptations either. Like I told Col, I’d be curious in you guys opinion of his work.

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