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Authors: James M. Cain

Past All Dishonor

BOOK: Past All Dishonor
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Past All Dishonor
James M. Cain


Introduction by Thomas Chastain















to Aileen

Introduction by Thomas Chastain

for the last five years of his life. We met when I interviewed him for
Publishers Weekly
at his home in Hyattsville, Maryland, on his eightieth birthday. Long before that, however, I had known the works of James M. Cain. In fact, I was still in my teens when I first read and was mesmerized by
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Double Indemnity,
and I haven’t stopped rereading, and being remesmerized by, them since—along with most of his seventeen other novels.

The body of work James M. Cain left behind has received a lion’s share of praise, and an almost equal amount of snobbish critical dismissal. Cain and his novels are nothing if not controversial. His writing
just as he meant it to. The authority, power and tension in his writing touch a nerve in readers and critics, more so than the work of any other writer in modern American letters.

On one level he took what most of us would rather think of as inexplicable human behavior—cold-blooded murder, greed, uninhibited sexuality—and gave it definition; took the kind of ordinary, faceless people who sometimes are guilty of such inexplicable behavior and gave them dimension. Of such matters is literature made.

On another level Cain was telling us something about ourselves, even cautioning us about ourselves. This is contained in what he thought of as the theme of all his novels, the theme he described as “the wish come true; the secret wish, the hidden dream—with a seed of evil in it—which becomes reality with terrifying consequences.”

is a word I have never heard used in connection with Cain’s writing, yet it is there. He was never condescending toward his characters, most of whom were somewhat “lesser mortals.” Nor did he sit in judgment at their actions. He was simply the recording instrument of them, of what they did, and the consequences of their actions. At the same time his work was highly moral, a fact almost always missed by those who read his books superficially and were too quick to pass judgment on him.

Much has been written in praise of the pace, the momentum, the acceleration of Cain’s narrative talent, and all of the praise has been deserved. But it didn’t just happen. He worked hard to achieve the effects to be found in his writing. He rewrote his books over and over again. Once he told me: “I made about fifty different starts on
Past All Dishonor.
... It had the biggest trade sale of all my books. That taught me not to give up.” The unique Cain style—the swift, almost breathless shifts of scene and action, the terse, jagged-edged dialogue, which frequently is saying a whole lot more than the literal words on the page—were the result of constant rewriting and refining as he filtered the story through his artistic sensibility. And it was this hard-earned style that creates an almost unbearable tension in his writing.

Past All Dishonor
was Cain’s seventh published novel and marks a departure in time and setting from most of his other novels; the time is the Civil War, the setting is the western frontier. Cain was always a great reader of history and
Past All Dishonor
is an example of how he attempted to incorporate past history into his fiction. During his Hollywood screenwriting days he had visited Nevada for background and research for a motion picture that was never made. Nevertheless he continued to research that period—the Civil War era—and place until, finally, he put it to use in this book.

Past All Dishonor
is important in the author’s canon for another reason. In it are all the vintage James M. Cain ingredients: murder, what he himself always called “the adventure of sex” and, most of all, the working out of the theme he believed to be central to all his writing, “the wish come true ... which becomes reality with terrifying consequences.”

As is true in all of his best novels, the detail—based on prodigious research—is authentic. And the characters—Roger Duval, a spy for the Confederate army, and Morina, a prostitute, who fall in love—are typical of the other headstrong, passionate, reckless characters who have figured in his best work.

It is difficult for a serious writer, as Cain was, to repeat the kind of stunning success he had with his first novel,
The Postman Always Rings Twice
. He is forever thereafter in competition with himself and must constantly guard against repeating the formula that worked so well before. At the same time, he must not deny his natural talent, just for the sake of doing something different. Cain struggled with this problem throughout the long years of his writing life. It is a tribute to his integrity as a writer that he did not deny his natural talent but, instead, tried to find new ways, as in
Past All Dishonor,
to tell the kinds of stories he was born to tell.

In 1942, Cain wrote in his own preface to a collection of three of his novels,
Three of a Kind:
“I am probably the most mis-read, mis-reviewed, and misunderstood novelist now writing.” There was, in truth, much justification for his statement. The literary establishment of his day always hedged its bets about the importance of his writing. He was quite conscious of this fact. Once, when I asked him if he was aware of the impact and influence of his novels on readers worldwide, on a couple of generations of writers, he answered, “It’s a very vain remark, but the question always is: Is he out of date? Or does he keep?” He then nodded his head. This edition of
Past All Dishonor,
published again almost four decades after it first appeared, would seem to verify his answer.

It has been half a century since James M. Cain began to publish his tales of passion and murder. In all the years since, no other writer has been able to equal, much less surpass, his classic novels. According to all the yardsticks by which great writers are measured, the works of James M. Cain have assured him a permanent place in world literature.

In the years that I knew him I sometimes talked with Cain about the body of his work. He admitted that he had reflected upon it now and then. For what it is worth, he chose
Past All Dishonor
as his personal favorite of all the novels he had written.

This book deals with the West of the silver boom, and the amateur of that era will find much in it which is familiar to him. The characters, however, are imaginary, as are the specific mines, establishments, and intrigues that engage them. They do not represent, and are not intended to represent, actual persons, places, or events, nor do they spring from local legend, directly or under disguise.

J. M. C.


, this girl you’ll find soon enough, when she fished me out of the Sacramento River on an occasion when I was showing more originality than sense. I was taking a day off from my job, which was secesh spy, though I may as well say right away there was no bravery attached to it, or anything like what they put in the novels. Last year, when Lee got kicked out of Maryland, I figured it was time to quit griping at how the feds ruined Annapolis, and do something about it. So I was packed for Port Tobacco, where I was to cross into Virginia and enlist, when a friend of mine heard something that scared him worse than what had happened to Lee. He’s got a big statehouse job, and gets a lot of stuff not everybody gets. And he heard about the Column from California, as they called it, that crossed the Colorado and moved through Arizona and New Mexico into Texas, and when we laid it out on the map it looked like they were going to scoop the Confederacy right into the Gulf of Mexico like a scythe scoops wheat. So he got a bunch together, and they had it all night, and decided there was still a chance for the western republic idea, but that our trouble was we didn’t know anything about California. So I got elected to go out there and send news back. But right away they warned me not to send any military information, unless it was hot and important, in which case I was to wire in a simple code we had that wouldn’t be suspected. Mainly I was to send newspaper clippings, and as Sacramento was a central spot, specially for political stuff, I settled down there, and took a shack by the river, on the Yolo side, so I could use a glass on the boats and anything else I wanted to see without anybody asking why. Couple of days a week I rockered a placer up on the American River, so there couldn’t be any question about what I was doing there. As a matter of fact I got enough color to live on. About once a week I’d take a steamboat trip up one of the rivers, to see what was going on, and there’s been plenty. That independent republic may not be such a dream as you’d think. And every couple of days I’d send on my clippings, covering both sides, like I was just a young fellow keeping his friends back east up to date. On the wire part, there wasn’t much to send. California is not where the war is, and even in San Francisco, outside of training new outfits going east, there’s not much military news.

One day in spring it got hot, and I put on some trunks and went in the river. The Sacramento, it’s not any Severn, but it felt good just the same and I fooled around quite a while. Then a boat came in and I swam over for her wash. Then I decided to board her for a dive. Her bumpers were out, and by pulling up on her wheel I could catch one and go over the rail of the freight deck. But I had forgotten how they do on these river boats. They hit the pier like they hit it, put out a plank to let off passengers, and then later they snug in for the day. So when that wheel began to turn, it was bad news. All hands were wharfside, and nobody was there to hear me holler and maybe tell the engineer. I hung on for a second, but that was taking me right up in the box. I dropped, and that put me at the bottom of the river, with mud swirling all around me, and that wheel overtop of me hooking it up like a thunderstorm.

How long I was down there I don’t know, and if a blade clipped me I couldn’t be sure. Next thing I knew I was coming up, and my head was out, but I couldn’t breathe on account of the foam all around, smothering me. Then something hit me on the head and I grabbed it. It was a fire bucket, the kind that’s made of canvas, with a rope on it, that they heave into the river when they want water quick. I hung on, and got some air, and caught sight of her, but whether she was young or old or pretty or plain I didn’t notice. She tied the bucket to the section of rail that goes over the hatch, and stretched her hand down to me. It didn’t reach. She threw both legs over the rail, turned around with her back to the river, dropped a foot down, and told me to catch hold of it. I did, and then inch by inch I went up. Each time she’d pull, a little noise would come out of her mouth, but it had guts to it and I knew if I could just hold on she’d get me out.

BOOK: Past All Dishonor
12.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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