Review published on January 26, 2018.
Old but not cold in the ground. Emotions run high in this thriller, as with all Cain novels you know blood will be spilled but you just don’t know whose or when. It’s tense and clever, and always surprising. When you read a classic by a master of noir, a book that has been overlooked for many years, it’s thrilling to realise how fresh it still is. This is hard-boiled crime written nearly eighty years ago. Even if there are elements of the plot you instinctively recognise that is because many of the books that have come since have used this story, built on it or maybe twisted it a little for new effect. Cain was a master at taking classic literature and turning it into noir. What is remarkable is it still feels original, you might think it would be a bit old hat, not so – Serenade is part of the source of the noir tradition. It still has a decent pace, that snappy dialogue that the hard-boiled school invented, and a tight plot. There are a couple of surprises along the way and a strong ending. Its a quick read, Cain doesn’t like to waste words, a fun one, all the more satisfying for having more depth than you realise until after you finish. Things click into place as you go and you realise how cleverly the events that take place have been set up early on.
A man down on his luck walks into a bar in Mexico. He knows a guy with only three pesos in his pocket should keep his head down, anything can happen on one of Mexico’s mean streets. A ‘Gringo’ needs eyes in the back of his head. A woman catches his eye but the pretty señorita is sitting with an old man. John Sharp strikes up a conversation with her chaperone, he tries to gamble for the girl’s time but he looses. With his last peso, as a parting gesture, he gives the señorita a lottery ticket. The woman is tired of the old man and leaves with Sharp. Fortune appears to favour the younger man as the old gent curses them. However, it becomes apparent to Juana that Sharp has no money. They part, a girl has to eat. Sharp has almost forgotten about it until she contacts him a couple of weeks later. What do you know, the lottery ticket was a winner – 500 pesos. Juana wants to set up a brothel in Acapulco with nice girls for the American tourists, the best way to make money, and as an American he can front the business for her. John knows just what Americans want; to buy the room not the girl and pay $5 not five pesos – she doesn’t understand that the cheaper the price the more suspicious of it an American will be. Thus begins the partnership of John and Juanita, only thing don’t work out like they planned. Juana’s plan to have Mama and Papa leave their little village to join their daughter in managing the brothel never happens. The couple smuggle themselves into the US. Things start to come good, a deal of serendipity sees John gets his career as a singer/film star on track. Everything seems to be going well, only this is noir, nothing lasts. Trouble comes in the form of an old friend of John’s, Winston Hawes, who turns up offering to further John career.
“….I happen to control a bank, or my somewhat boorish family happen to control it. They embarrass me greatly, but sometimes they have a kind of low, swinish usefulness”.
A strange menagé is formed and secrets will out, it’s set to get very hot and sticky. Cain, author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice (both featured in our piece on Thérèse Raquin), is a master of the hard boiled drama.
Even before you know where the story is going, and a few twists will get you, the attitude and atmosphere crackle. The anticipation is delicious, the mad logic with which people react in ways not normal or helpful and chaos ensues. Noir is as much a part of the American psyche as it’s politics and economics and novels like this gave foreign writers the taste for crime. Cain also manages a cutting analysis of the film industry in Hollywood. Realistic and tough this is what hard boiled fiction is all about.
Paul Burke 4/4
Serenade by James M. Cain
W&N 9781780220208 pbk Jun 2011
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