James Cain, “Mildred Pierce” (1941) – This is a record of economic survival during the Depression and of brutal intra-family psychological warfare. James Cain hated being called a “crime” or “hardboiled” writer, and from “Mildred Pierce” you can see why: there’s very little crime in the novel, and the heroine is a housewife-turned-businesswoman, not a detective. But if it doesn’t answer exactly to the “crime” descriptor, “Mildred Pierce” definitely answers to “hardboiled.” In terms of brute realities played straight, sans romanticism or even excess griminess, this one is as hardboiled as they come.
The titular Mildred starts out the novel in Glendale, making pies and kicking her unfaithful, feckless, jobless husband Bert to the curb. This leaves her alone with her two daughters, happy-go-lucky Ray and haughty, preternaturally self-possessed Veda. She has a hard time committing to either a relationship that could bring her back to her kept state (not that the men in her life are so gallant) or the sort of job that would mark her as “low class”- anything in a uniform. She swallows her pride, though, and becomes a waitress. Maybe this is just me, but I found those parts almost as harrowing as the family conflicts that would come later. Cain invokes all of the tenseness and discouragement of fruitless job searching and all of the stress of working shitty new jobs, reaffirming along the way my decision to avoid the food service industry like the plague even if it lands me in fluorescent office hell…
But it’s not all doom and gloom, or rather, Cain knows that life likes to let the fish run out the line sometimes. Mildred becomes as successful as you can as a waitress, and with some pluck (and under the lash of Veda’s snobbish disapproval) works up to running her own chain of chicken restaurants. This is another difference from the standard hardboiled noir- this one takes place over a series of years instead of a few days or weeks. Mildred romances Monty, a down-at-the-heels California aristocrat and suffers personal tragedy, but the red thread that runs through it all is her determination to provide her daughter Veda with what she thinks she deserves.
But of course, it’s never enough. It’s not things or anyway not just things that Veda wants- she wants to be a different person, to come from different people, and is willing to betray her mother in escalatingly brutal ways to approximate that fantasy version of herself. Veda has a sociopath’s luck- she’s not exactly talented, musically, but has looks and a special type of inborn vocal capability that allows her, with help from money Mildred increasingly doesn’t have, to achieve escape velocity from Glendale and all that it represents for her. Mildred’s sacrifice not just of her love and money but of her own pride — she marries and supports Monty just to get closer to Mildred — are nothing but chits, and cheap ones, in Veda’s games. The depiction of Veda could easily become hackneyed, a bigger version of a child with the gimmies, but the dynamic between her and Mildred feels real. While she’s awful to betray Mildred as she does so often for frequently such small stakes, there’s a grain of real need in her desire to get away from a mother who insists on doing everything for her. All of that adds to the claustrophobic feel of the book, this raging war fought with gestures of kindness and cruelty between two utterly committed opponents. All in all, a great read. *****