Hillel Italie of The Associated Press wrote Thursday about a new story by one of the masters of hard-boiled fiction, James M. Cain — no small feat, since Cain has been dead for nearly 35 years. The story, called “The Cocktail Waitress” when its discovery was first announced last year, was published in The Strand Magazine‘s summer issue as “Momma’s A Barfly.”
Andrew F. Gulli, the Strand’s managing editor, told the AP how he found the World War II-era story:
“I was going through some papers at the library of Congress and as an admirer of Cain, this one didn’t ring a bell,” [Gulli said]. “It didn’t take a lot of research for me to realize that I discovered a literary treasure.”
Cain is best known for a trio of popular noir novels that were turned into even more popular films: “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Mildred Pierce” and “Double Indemnity.” He was one of those who straddled the line between “serious” writer and pulp novelist; Albert Camus, among others, cited him as an influence. But students of West Virginia history know him for a completely different reason.
He first became widely known as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, covering the West Virginia Mine Wars. Specifically, he really made a name for himself covering the trials of United Mine Workers leaders in the Eastern Panhandle, where the trials were moved (as far away from the southern coalfields as they could get).
Cain covered the conflict between coal miners and operators for several publications, and some of his work is reprinted in David Corbin’s “Gun Thugs, Rednecks, and Radicals: A Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars.” Corbin (who’s coming to this fall’s West Virginia Book Festival) included a piece by Cain for The Atlantic Monthly that begins like this:
As you leave the Ohio River at Kenova, and wind down the Norfolk and Western Railroad beside the Big Sandy and Tug rivers, you come into a section where there is being fought the bitterest and most unrelenting war in modern industrial history. The country furnishes a suitable setting. Rocky hills, small mountains, rise on each side. They are gashed by “creeks”; looking up these, you see that the wild region extends for miles back from the railroad. There is no soft, mellow outline about these hills. They are sharp and jagged; about their tops grows a stunted, scraggly forest. Their color is raw; glaring reds and yellows, hard, water-streaked grays. Here and there you see the blue-black ribbon of coal.
In this untamed section of West Virginia two tremendous forces have staked out a battleground. These are the United Mine Workers of America and the most powerful group of nonunion coal-operators in the country. It is a battle to the bitter end; neither side asks quarter, neither side gives it. It is a battle for enormous stakes, on which money is lavished; it is fought through the courts, through the press, with matching of sharp wits to secure public approval. But more than this, it is actually fought with deadly weapons on both sides; many lives have already been lost; many may yet be forfeited.
(Wow. I like the semicolon, but that guy LOVED the semicolon.)
Cain eventually became a member of the UMW, and mentioned his experience in West Virginia in one of the fantastic “The Art of Fiction” interviews with The Paris Review:
In 1922 when I was still on The Baltimore Sun, I took the winter off to go down and work in the mines. I tried to write the Great American Novel, and wrote three of them, none of them any good. I had to come slinking back to work admitting that the Great American Novel hadn’t been written.
But later in the same interview, Cain said that experience helped him with his novel “The Butterfly,” published in 1946 and set in West Virginia near the Kentucky line:
You see, I had this material left over from when I was going to write that first novel about the coal fields down in West Virginia. The one I told you about. I’m a member of the United Mine Workers. I worked in the coal mines. By the way, it was Thornton Wilder who got involved in that book and suggested I work on it again.
As for Cain’s new story? I haven’t read it; I will, eventually, but I admit my hopes aren’t high. Experience has taught me that when something unknown by a long-dead author is found, there’s usually a reason that the author didn’t publish it. But even below-par Cain would be better than a lot of stuff out there.