James M. Cain
There's "noir," as in, "it's-actually-hardboiled-but-that-requires-three-syllables-to-say," and then there's real "noir" as in, "this-world-is-so-dark-that-the-only-thing-that-stops-this-from-being-a-dystopia-is-that-it-supposedly-takes-place-in-the-real-world." James M. Cain was a master of the second variety. His terse, simplistic structure, vivid imagery, distinctive male gaze, and liberal use of femme fatales all had tremendous influence on the genre, especially on other landmark authors such as Raymond Chandler. Cain is probably my favorite out of the "dark noir" subgenre--probably because his books are only about 100 pages. How depressed can you possibly get from only 100 pages? You'd be surprised.
Walter Huff, a hardworking and practical insurance man, stops by an acquaintance's house and receives a proposition from the man's wife: help her murder her husband.
I know that I'm supposed to be horrified by the sociopathic femme fatale who cynically uses her sexuality to enthrall the hapless insurance man. From the first moment he sees her, Huff is entranced by her appearance, and every description is an accusation. The way he tells the story, her clothing, her eyes, her mouth, her curves are to blame for the relationship, not Huff. She was "asking for it." Yet if you examine the actual events, Huff is the one who initiates a relationship; when he kisses her, she freezes and then capitulates. Maybe our oh-so-wicked femme fatale was thinking about it, but despite Huff's surety, she still wavers: "Please, Walter, don't let me do this. It's simply insane." Huff is the one who brings up murder. Huff is the one who actually states that they need to go through with it. Huff is the one who suggests double indemnity. I don't find his 'justice' sympathetic; it is entirely coldblooded and selfish, just like the rest of his actions. When he despises Phyllis, it's not because he feels remorse; it's because he sees that the only way to achieve his new aim, La-lalala-Lola, is by framing an innocent man and murdering his conspirator. So no matter what Phyllis did, a man who can think like that was not tempted off the path of grace; he was already busily forging his own path to destruction. She's fascinated by death. He's repelled. Since both kill for gain, which is really worse, which more pitiable?] So maybe Phyllis is as diabolical as Huff paints her. But how is he any better?
Cain's characters do not live in a world of greys; they have strayed far past the threshold between good and evil. It is a book firmly rooted in its time, where Huff's Filipino "houseboy" is not even given the dignity of a name and is repeatedly referred to as "the Filipino." My fascination stems from horror; the way the characters can casually and matter-of-factly speak of such atrocities is both repulsive and riveting. As Huff says, "There comes a time in any murder when the only thing that can see you through is audacity." It is this audacity, the thrill of the heist, the "prestige," as Christopher Priest would say, that makes this book difficult to put down. It is also hard to turn away from the inevitability of the tragedy. As Huff says, "That's all it takes: one drop of fear to curdle love into hate."
It turns out that 100 pages can be very depressing indeed.