For me, when it comes to American crime novels, the Holy Trinity are and always will be Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain. Picking between them would be impossible, because they all have their strengths. Chandler had the best way with words and the best detective. Hammett was great at creating a world populated with captivating characters and his plotting was always incredibly strong. However, in my opinion, James M. Cain had the darkest, most compelling imagination of the three. Cain’s novels are explorations of horribly flawed people in desperate situations and at the mercy of emotions beyond their control. There is something primal about the evil Cain taps into it, and his best works are often quite disturbing.
Despite being quite enamored of Cain’s work, I had never heard of Serenade, which was his second novel. After reading it, I can definitely say it doesn’t rise up to the level of Mildred Pierce or The Postman Always Rings Twice. However, it is a worthy read for fans of hardboiled crime novels. Cain’s narrator is John Howard Sharp, an opera singer gone to seed who finds his career revitalized by his relationship with a Mexican-Indian prostitute before an untimely act of violence throws everything into jeopardy.
Sharp is a hard character to get a bead on, and nearly impossible to like. Cain does such a good job presenting his bitterness and disdain for the world, especially Mexico, that it makes Sharp thoroughly unlikable right from the beginning. Even his love for Juana, so powerful he risks prison to bring her into the U.S. with him, is not enough to redeem him. In the tradition of the genre though, Sharp is an impressive specimen. He is a crafty businessman and negotiator, scheming and operating his way into a series of lucrative performing gigs on practically guile alone. Juana is less developed as a character, perhaps an unfortunate side effect of the era in which Cain was writing.
Cain’s prose is as sharp as ever, but in Serenade his plotting feels off. The novel purports to be about a deadly triangle, but the third side doesn’t enter until two-thirds of the way through, and thus isn’t given enough time to become a meaningful presence before the necessary events unfold. Perhaps that problem could have been solved if Cain hadn’t been so eager to indulge his own personal love of classical music and opera by having Sharp discuss at length his opinions on numerous great composers, some he admires and some he disdains. One or two of these discussions could have been illuminating, but collectively they bored this reader.
When Cain is focused on his characters’ emotional states, their predicaments, and their instincts for survival, Serenade becomes a gripping read, but there’s not enough of that to rate this in the first line of Cain’s work.