Two famous Hollywood films were made with this title, in 1946 with Ava Gardner as Cora and another in 1981 with Jack Nicholson as Frank, neither of which this reader saw. After this literary debut in 1934 at the age of 42, James M. Cain produced some 20 less successful books while working on numerous Hollywood screenplays. This book, once banned in Boston for its mix of sex and violence, is today considered an American noir classic and his best. The meaning of the book’s title remains a mystery and adds to its aura of brilliance.
The novel is about penniless drifter Frank (24) meeting cook and waitress Cora (20?) in a roadside diner/gas station owned by her despised Greek husband Nick. They fall for each other instantly and soon decide to kill Nick. Much of author Cain’s brilliance is to write, from start to finish, purely from the perspective of his impulsive, somewhat dim-witted but passionate character Frank, and to gradually expose his past and character, strengths and weaknesses in his own words to us, readers to mull over and judge…
This Cain technique gave readers the chance to judge Frank’s choices for themselves by what at every twist and turn of the tale. Cain always refused to be categorized: hard-boiled crime stories were about catching criminals. His book explored the mind of one (or two) of them. In the 1930s, this was a novelty.
Full of deliberate grammar errors and quasi-clumsy writing, this book is authentic because of the powerful prose and wild passion and poorly defined hopes it exudes. It is written in a raw, fast and furious manner James M. Cain never managed to replicate. Great stylistic writing experiment. Captivating reading.
Finally, what was Frank drinking that he called "coke and ammonia"?