Click here to read more from Slate's "Pulp Fiction" week.
The first house I bought did not come with a refrigerator, so friends made a gift of a 1950s-era model that they were replacing. It was plump and ivory-skinned, but it harbored a terminal disease within its lovely body and died in just two days. I put it in the garden and decorated its sides with opening lines from books that were precious to me. (I was very young.) One of those lines was: "In the spring of 1931, on a lawn in Glendale, California, a man was bracing trees."
It's not a great beginning, or a memorable one. It's not even the best opening written by its particular author, James M. Cain. (That distinction goes to The Postman Always Rings Twice , which begins: "They threw me off the hay truck about noon.") It is, however, the beginning of Mildred Pierce, my favorite Cain work. Postman was Cain's first and most celebrated novel. Double Indemnity made for the more memorable movie. But Mildred Pierce is the unicorn of crime fiction, a noir novel with no murder and very little crime.
Unlike Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, his better-known and still-celebrated peers, Cain felt like "my" discovery when I started reading him in college. Vintage had just released his first six novels in snazzy paperback editions with beautiful sepia-tinted covers. I read Postman first, and I still own my original copy, but it's my Vintage edition of Mildred Pierce that disintegrated long ago. With this book's subversively skeptical view of maternal love, Cain proved that noir could be set in the most domestic, middle-class locales. He also showed that a man can write beautifully from a woman's point of view.
Mildred, a "grass widow" abandoned in the early years of the Depression, will do anything for her pre-teen children, Veda and Rae. Veda, the older one, has delusions of grandeur, which Mildred encourages: "Mildred doted on her, for her looks, her promise of talent, and her snobbery, which hinted at things superior to her own commonplace nature." Mildred, in fact, is so desperate for Veda's approval that she'll lie to get it. When Mildred takes a waitressing job so her children can continue eating, Veda is appalled. In the fight that ensues, Mildred rashly fibs that she took the gig only because she hopes to open her own restaurant—a lucrative prospect: "That did it. Even though a restaurant might not be quite the toniest thing that Veda could imagine, riches spoke to the profoundest part of her nature," Cain writes.
Yet Veda is Mildred's favorite child, which becomes obvious after the sudden death of sweet, unpretentious Rae. "There came torrential shaking sobs, as she last gave way to this thing she had been fighting off: a guilty, leaping joy that it had been the other child who was taken from her, not Veda." For my money, this is the most shocking passage that Cain ever wrote, eclipsing even the moment where Postman's scheming lovers have sex immediately after committing murder.
According to Cain's biographer Roy Hoopes, Cain got the idea for Mildred Pierce from a screenwriter friend who suggested there was "one story that never fails, the woman who uses men to gain her ends." But it was Cain who decided that Mildred's end would be her daughter's affection—not marriage or money. She allows Monty, a dissolute Pasadena playboy, to become her unofficial gigolo because Veda admires him so. And when she realizes he is her only hope of mending a breach with the now-grown Veda, Mildred ensnares Monty into matrimony.
The problem for Mildred is that Monty and Veda are expensive to maintain—especially Veda, a literal diva who has taken up opera singing. Mildred's done well for herself, evolving from mere waitress to the owner of a chain of restaurants, but overreaches by trying to give these two sycophants everything they want. So, shades of Enron, she begins cooking the books, secretly helping herself to large amounts. With her business crumbling around her, Mildred goes in search of her daughter—and finds her in bed with Monty. Mildred finally—finally—snaps.
But it wasn't at Monty that she leaped. … It was at Veda, her daughter, the girl who had done no more than what Mildred had once said was a woman's right. It was a ruthless creature seventeen years younger than herself, with fingers like steel from playing the piano, and legs like rubber from riding, swimming and all the recreations that Mildred had made possible for her.
1940's Hollywood did not dare reproduce this shocking scene when Mildred Pierce was adapted for the screen. Instead, the Joan Crawford comeback vehicle portrayed Veda as a petulant teen with a one-sided crush: She kills Monty because he truly loves Mildred. Hooray for old Hollywood, where wholesomeness is achieved by nixing adultery and adding murder. The book's ending is much cleverer than the film's—a quick-thinking Veda turns the attack to her advantage in a complicated plot twist that gave Cain fits when he was trying to construct it, so I won't spoil it here. But later, when Mildred realizes that Veda has betrayed her yet again, she says, "To hell with her!"
Although I now grimace at Cain's ugly stereotypes of Greek-Americans, he remains one of my literary heroes. He was a Baltimore Sun journalist, as I was, and a great respecter of facts in fiction; Mildred Pierce is a solid little primer on how to run a chicken-and-waffle joint. He also was willing to spar openly with his critics, something I'd never do but find vicariously thrilling.
Today, the conventional wisdom is that he never equaled his debut novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, despite the fact that Mildred Pierce was reviewed as Cain's first "serious" work, in part because literary critic Edmund Wilson had recently named Cain a rising star in American fiction. Cain, who didn't believe in advances, sold Mildred Pierce, his fourth novel, for $5,000, a significant sum at the time. To celebrate the sale, Hoopes writes, Cain bought a snowball maker, like the one he remembered from his boyhood. The snowballs weren't much good, but the machine made divine mint juleps. This is an apt metaphor for Mildred Pierce, a book that delivers much more of a wicked kick than expected, especially if you've been raised on the saccharine pieties of the film.