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The characters are pure noir: Pat, a “dark, heavily handsome thick-shouldered” young man; Myra, a “cheesecakey” woman whose “thick blonde hair” fell “off her bare head to brilliant brassy effect.”
And they talk the way crime fiction characters used to talk, as crafted by James M. Cain, in a short story rarely seen until now.
“Hello there,” she said.
“You looking for someone?”
“He just now left.
“In the taxi?”
“For the concert. He likes egghead music.”
Cain’s “Blackmail” is featured in the new issue of Strand Magazine, a quarterly which has unearthed obscure works by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Shirley Jackson and many others. Written over the latter part of his life and left unpublished, “Blackmail” tells of a blind Korean War veteran known as Johnsie; Pat, the former comrade who now employs him; and Myra, a woman from the past with some hard-boiled ideas about money, and love.
“Here, Cain serves up vintage noir — complete with gritty dialogue, a damaged war hero, and a young femme fatale who thinks she’s a lot harder than she really is — only to then turn the tale on its head in the very final scene,” Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli wrote in a brief introduction.
The themes in “Blackmail” of betrayal, violence, rough sexuality — and blackmail — echo such Cain classics as “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Paul Skenazy, a professor emeritus of at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has written books on Cain and Raymond Chandler among others, called the story minor, but compelling.
“‘Blackmail’ is the perfect title for a James M. Cain story,” Skenazy said. “Cain really had few other subjects: forbidden desire, the violence it leads to, the secrets we hide from ourselves and others, the price we pay to hide who we are and what we’ve done.”
“These are all wounded figures,” he added: “a man blinded in Korea, his friend whom he rescued, a mysterious woman from the past who enters their lives looking to make a quick buck.”
Cain, who died in 1977 at 85, is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest crime fiction writers and would describe his work as having “some quality of the opening of a forbidden box.” Born in Baltimore in 1892, he wrote for years for The American Mercury and other magazines and newspapers before he published his first fiction, in his mid-30s. Starting with his million-selling debut novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” he was a prolific fiction writer and screenplay writer in the 1930s and 1940s, and saw “Double Indemnity,” “Mildred Pierce” and other of his books adapted into classic Hollywood movies.
By the 1950s, his popularity was in decline and his style was seen as outdated. Cain had lived in Los Angeles over the previous two decades, but returned to Maryland and quit such longtime vices as drinking and smoking. Skenazy noted that “Blackmail,” set in Washington, D.C., has a more forgiving view of human nature than in his earlier work.
“In Cain’s best work,” he said, ”no one is exempt from Cain’s irony and life’s brutality. Here, the exemptions abound. Those exemptions don’t make for his best writing but do provide a more generous, sentimental, even humane ending than we generally expect from Cain.”