“Discovering James M. Cain – Again!”
by Andrew McAleer
In September 2011 respected literary journals from all over the world—Mystery Readers Journal leading the pack—made an astounding announcement – the discovery of an unpublished James M. Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress. Publisher Hard Case Crime has slated the novel for release next fall. As partial provenance for Waitress, Hard Case publisher Charles Ardai, credits Edgar winner John McAleer’s posthumous book Packed and Loaded: Conversations with James M. Cain. The discovery of Waitress has been called the “Holy Grail” for crime fiction fans and the origin of Packed and Loaded is no less fascinating. Accordingly, it seems fitting that MRJ readers share the following special glimpse into the amazing backstory of Packed and Loaded.
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It is Rex Stout who deserves the credit for introducing me to James M. Cain, and while I’m not so sure the postman does actually ring twice—or even once for that matter—I know now that Rex Stout indeed does.
In May of 1978, my father returned home from the Mystery Writers of America’s annual dinner in New York City with a new member of the family—Edgar Allan Poe. By unanimous vote, his Rex Stout: A Biography won the Edgar Allan Poe award for critical works.
Prior to Stout, my father had established himself in the field of literary biography having authored major works on Thoreau and Dreiser, but it was ultimately Stout that would garner him praise from literary giants like Jacques Barzun who hailed him as “ ... a master biographer.” And Norma Cousins—whose high standards are a matter of record—of the Saturday Review of Literature said of Stout “This is a superb book .... All friends of Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe, and Archie Goodwin are in John McAleer’s debt.” It wasn’t until many years later—during law school in fact—that I would become a friend of Wolfe and Archie; and therefore, be in my father’s literary debt.
To help maintain what little sanity I had left in law school, I devoured Stouts and not just the Wolfe stories. I breezed through novels like The Mountain Cat, The Hand in the Glove, his pulp stories collected in Justice Ends at Home, and I’ll even admit to reading Alphabet Hicks—who Stout himself said he wouldn’t give a damn for. I also read my father’s biography on Stout and its companion, Royal Decree: Conversations with Rex Stout. In the chapter, “Rex on His Peers,” I came across this quote from Stout:
I think Cain’s a hell of a good storyteller, a marvelous storyteller. That way of telling a story—I don’t think you can do it any better than The Postman Always Rings Twice. It can’t be done better than that. I think it’s a perfect job. If I were asked to name the living writer who I think has stuck most closely to that idea—stick to the story, stick to the goddamn story—it probably would be James M. Cain. There’s not a word in Cain that does not apply to the story he’s telling you.
This was the first ring. As a new author I took Stout’s words to heart and read The Postman Always Rings Twice and would quickly move on to Double Indemnity, The Butterfly, The Embezzler, and Career in C Major. Not that I ever had any doubts, but Stout couldn’t have been more right about Cain and his ability to stick to the story. Simple advice that might be easy to understand, but difficult to put into action.
I took Cain to heart and wanted to learn more about him, so I asked my father what would be the definitive biography on Cain. Without missing a beat he suggested Roy Hoopes’s biography and then, almost casually, he said that his notes on Cain might also be helpful. “What do you mean?” I asked. And then he told me that during the 1970s, Cain had asked him to write his biography. My father lamented, however, that the notes were probably long gone, but that I was welcomed to rifle his files. I looked under “C” no luck. Under “J” no luck. Under “M” no luck. And since my father’s files are voluminous, containing more than a half century’s worth of research from Jane Austen, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Patrick O’Brian, I knew I’d have as much luck finding the misplaced Cain papers as I would a Bible at a tax planning seminar. Thankfully, Stout was not so pessimistic.
The doorbell rang again. It was around this time that a publisher sought permission to reprint the Stout Biography with an updated Introduction. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the Foreword to the original Biography and my father thought it might be nice to review his correspondence with Wodehouse to see if he could come up with any new tidbits for the new Stout Introduction. I told him I’d fetch them for him and when I returned with the file, I carried with me a sheaf of Cain material.
Now in my hands were original Cain envelopes containing original letters with extensive marginalia from Cain’s own hand. Also contained were my father’s interviews, typed out nearly a quarter of a century ago on his IBM electric, which sits in my office today. Some of the interviews were compiled via correspondence and some by tape recorder, recorded by one of my father’s top-notch graduate students at Boston College, Harry Sapienza.
Harry lived near Cain in Maryland, so my father arranged for them to visit during the Thanksgiving break of 1976. Armed with pages upon pages full of questions drafted by father, young Harry met with Cain and did a remarkable job of getting Cain to record his thoughts. Fortunately, the recordings had been transcribed before their disappearance —coincidentally, their disappearance occurred around the time Poe appeared on the scene! (Well, that’s our convenient excuse.)
The Cain tapes have not yet surfaced, but I haven’t given up hope—not by a long shot. I have great faith that the presence of Rex Stout and James M. Cain ring eternal.
—Andrew McAleer works as a prosecutor and is the author of the 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists and the recently released private eye novel, Fatal Deeds.
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