Sunday, September 14, 2014

Love's Lovely Counterfeit (1942)

I don't think you can count this as one of the best by James M. Cain, which makes me wonder how precipitously the quality falls off after his three best-known novels (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce). Even this one got made into a movie too (Slightly Scarlet, 1956) so conceivably it is still better than many others. It frequently put me in mind of Dashiell Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest. Both are focused on changes of corrupting power in mid-sized or small cities, engineered by one or two clever enterprising fellows (and dames), the chief enterpriser also doing the first-person narrative honors. So we see and hear from such principals as the mayor, district attorney, chief of police, and boss crime lord. Excuse me for yawning. I don't see many productive directions for fiction about political corruption to go, All the King's Men notwithstanding. If it turns out the bad guys win it's cynical and also not a surprise; if the good guys take it it's not believable. Better all around to go the factual route, because the old cliché holds true: you can't make up the best stuff. Given that it is Cain in 1942, there's a certain amount of quality here in spite of everything (including that I would be surprised if he looked at this manuscript more than twice, and not at all surprised if it were only once). Dialogue and exposition are clipped and propulsive, also lots of people are strangely familiar with opera. There's a love story at the center but Cain is unable for once to make it sick enough to be interesting, so it tends to just lay there and quiver any time it's rotated up front. There's lots of action, lots of narrative sequence, but not much in the way of stakes, just low-level hoodlum types getting over on their higher-level superiors, extending all the way up to the mayor's office—two mayor's offices, actually, because of course there's also an obvious element of irony here about the everlasting fungibility of political corruption. There are biographies and history books packed full of stories much better than this. For better or worse, however, few will tell them as well as Cain does, so you can take that into account too.

In case it's not at the library.

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