Pastorale by James M. Cain from Best American Noir of the Century

best american noir of the centuryReviewed by Cullen Gallagher

The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Serenade, Mildred Pierce, Love’s Lovely Counterfeit – James M. Cain’s name is virtually synonymous with noir, and it all starts with his first short story, “Pastorale.” Tough and compact, it’s an astonishingly assured debut that heralds many of the thematic and stylistic motifs that would become Cain’s calling cards. The story is about a none-too-bright drifter, Burbie, who returns to his hometown and slums around the local bar. Things start to go south when he reunites with his his ex, Lida, who has since married the owner of the local dry goods store. Things get even worse when they decide to knock off her husband, and Burbie asks the ornery Hutch to help commit the deed.

If you haven’t already figured, nothing goes as planned for this small-town, low-life trio.

Cain is well known for his economy of words, which is on full display in “Pastorale,” but what is also impressive is the richness of the first-person colloquial narration. The conversational, gossipy narrator tells the story with equal-parts salacious curiosity, cynicism, and pride. It is as though the whole town knew Burbie would never amount to much, but that they admire the legacy he made for himself, even if it came at a hefty price. The narrator’s casual attitude to the violent and sordid deeds belies the country-bumpkin atmosphere of the town. The story also foreshadows the concoction of desperation, sex, money, and murder that would be the cornerstones of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

One of the interesting things about Cain is that, unlike his hardboiled brethren Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy and Raymond Chandler, his short stories didn’t originally appear in the pulps. “Pastorale” was originally published in the March 1928 issue of H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury. A journalist for many years before turning to fiction, Cain’s other publication credits included The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Redbook. But, as “Pastorlae” shows, Cain could be just as dark, gritty, and even humorous, as any of his contemporaries in Black Mask (which had its own ties to Mencken, who was the original owner but quickly sold the magazine in the early 1920s for a quick profit). Not too shabby a start for a writer who would soon become one of the most influential voices of his generation.

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Cullen Gallagher runs the blog Pulp Serenade. His work has appeared in Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Moving Image Source, Reverse Shot, The Brooklyn Rail, and Guitar Review.

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