This month’s classics challenge was to read a crime novel set in 1941. Alas the closest I’ll come is last month’s reading of Agatha Christie’s N or M because the one book I had to hand that I thought would be perfect – James M Cain’s MILDRED PIERCE – turned out to be unsuitable. Although it was published in 1941 it isn’t a crime novel.
Apparently I’m not the only misguided reader to have assumed Cain wrote only crime novels. This Guardian columnist talks about the book having a homicidal daughter but unless I dozed off for a chapter or two (not entirely implausible) MILDRED PIERCE contains nothing quite so entertaining as murder.
In California in the 1930’s the book’s titular heroine is married to a philandering, feckless bloke called Bert. Not unreasonably she kicks him out of their home in the book’s opening pages. Left with naked ambition and two young daughters to support Mildred Pierce is forced to become a waitress to make ends meet. To be clear I’m not the one who thinks there is anything wrong with being a waitress. It’s Mildred who thinks the work beneath her. To the extent that she hides her uniform and the job itself for as long as she can. The only person less impressed with the notion of her working for a crust is Mildred’s repulsive elder daughter Veda. All of 9 or 10 when we first meet her Veda is the snobbiest of snobs: proud of her father’s disdain for work and sneering about her mother’s efforts at just about everything. Mildred loves Veda far more than she ought to. Too much for both their goods. Indeed this all-encompassing, entirely unrequited love is eventually Mildred’s undoing but the journey to that point was not, for me at least, particularly engaging. Even non criminal novels need to have some element of suspense but when a character is as truly horrendous as Veda building any kind of tension is pretty difficult. Because at some point the reader becomes aware that there is no depth too low for such a vile human being to sink and we know it’s only a matter of time before they bring those around them undone. And so it was with Mildred Pierce and the repugnant Veda.
Without some character whose fate I could care about I found myself losing interest in the book, despite the fact it’s blessedly short. Its setting is undoubtedly very realistic but it is the depression: it doesn’t exactly draw one into its warm embrace. And while Mildred goes go on to achieve professional success and at least some of the social acceptance she desires so desperately I thought her almost as superficial as her daughter. The kind of person I’d go out of my way to avoid in real life. And while Veda is, I suppose, eye catching in the same way that a car accident can be, I found myself looking for things that weren’t there. Specifically any hint of why she was the way she was. Cain gives us no hints. Perhaps this is what dates the book more than anything else. Is it only in more recent times that such psychological misfits need to be explained?
As is often the case most people are of an entirely different opinion regarding MILDRED PIERCE. It’s been the subject of two successful adaptations (including the 1945 film for which Joan Crawford won her only Oscar) and a much-missed friend thought it remarkable. So perhaps you ought not take my word for it.