Thursday, April 14, 2011


Laura Lippman has written down some good, insightful thoughts for you to read about James M. Cain's MILDRED PIERCE (different than the earlier Slate magazine essay of hers on the same subject, which you can find after a few "clicks" here). Here's a sample sentence: "The not-so-secret dirty little secret of hard-boiled fiction is that it’s awash in sentiment; those tough guys, for all their intelligence, can be the biggest suckers of all." See, that is close to something I have been pointing out to my hardboiled fiction class... so often your hardboiled protagonist (especially in a traditional detective novel) NEEDS to be a sap for the story to work. How often does the detective with an ill-advised soft spot end up working for a client who has no money? How often does the client who starts the book betray the detective's tender trust? I will tell you: EVERY TIME! I mean, how often does our hero fall hopelessly in love with a photograph (Sughrue in THE LAST GOOD KISS) or painting (McPherson in LAURA) of an alluring young woman who is presumably deceased? Forget sentimentality! Half the time we're practically wallowing in gothic romance. Hardboiled fiction is as full of ghosts and castles and raging thunderstorms that reflect the wildness in the characters' hearts (see MILDRED PIERCE!) and vampires as anything. Isn't Veda a vampire? Doesn't she blossom as her once-vibrant host is reduced to a shapeless, worn-down shadow, "a panting, dumpy little thing in a black dress"? Lippman's point is about the comparative lack of sentimentality in Cain (as opposed to Chandler, for example), a true observation, but even tough, practical Mildred is a sap where Veda is concerned. (Bled dry! Fed upon! "Sapped"! Vampire!) And I guess Captain Ahab is a sap for Moby-Dick. Can't you see what literature is trying to tell us? We're all a bunch of saps!