This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
James M. Cain is a rather disreputable author. His name is all but synonymous with sex-and-violence noir melodrama. While many find him compulsively readable, he doesn't exactly inspire reverence. (Cain's male characters don't embody adolescent masculine ideals the way Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett's do, and that may account for those authors' higher statures.) But Cain's 1941 novel Mildred Pierce rises far above the level of pot-boiler. It's the work of a first-rate writer of prose fiction. The story is set during the Great Depression. The title character is a middle-class divorcée who goes from near destitution to up-from-the-bootstraps success as a restauranteur. It's hard to say what is more impressive: Cain's fast-paced, no-frills prose, his ability to craft incident and character into a full-bodied narrative, or his absolutely stunning eye for social detail. That said, he also gives his talent for lurid sensationalism a good deal of play. There's plenty of grit and sex, and most of the novel's juice in its latter sections comes from its fresh reworking of the femme fatale scenario. The good man isn't brought down by his misplaced love for a wicked, manipulative woman. Rather, Mildred is undone by her devotion to her daughter, a haughty, conniving minx who uses sex as a weapon to get her way. It's not a great novel. For all his ability, Cain lacks poetic daring and dazzle. But it's an extremely satisfying one.