James M. Cain on the perfect murder (and the perfect murder mystery)

My recent hard-boiled fiction vision quest led me to a couple of classic James M. Cain novels this week: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. I'd read Postman before somewhere back in my personal Paleozoic Era, and during both reads, the biggest mystery involved was...well, where the hell is the postman? More on that tomorrow.

Double Indemnity is about a perfect murder. It doesn't come off perfectly because of the imperfect perps, but the strategy was sound. Walter Huff explains the high concept to his co-conspirator, Phyllis Nirdlinger (yeah, if my name was Phyllis Nirdlinger, I'd wanna kill somebody too), thusly:
"Get this, Phyllis. There's three essential elements to a successful murder. The first is, help. One person can't get away with it, that is unless they're going to admit it and plead the unwritten law or something. It takes more than one. The second is, the time, the place, the way, all known in advance -- to us, but not to him. The third is, audacity. There comes a time in any murder when the only thing that can see you through is audacity."

The exact prescription holds true for the writing of a murder mystery, I'm finding.

Help: I can see writing an introspective memoir or relationshippy women's fiction in solitude, but the layered plotting, red herrings, and double back flip triple sowkow stuff requires additional eyes. There's no way you can step far back enough to see if the surprises actually work or if they come off as cheap gags. The intricacies of mystery require lots and lots of conversation and critique.

Planning: Note cards are my friend. The chess board has to be constantly moving to keep the pages turning, and it has to play out like a tapestry -- all knots and loose ends while you're working on it, but flip it over when it's done and marvel at the elegant design. Pointless meandering is not allowed. Over the past several weeks, mainlining the hard-boiled novels of Hammet, Chandler, and now Cain, I've been blown away by the clean, straight lines of the stories. Characters and events are utterly purpose-driven. Very few words are wasted on description, kvelling, or lovemaking, yet that clean-starched prose manages to be incredibly evocative, revelatory, and even, at times, erotic. (I posted a while back about literary sex in brief, and Cain has two fabulous three-word sex scenes in Postman: "I had her." And "We did plenty." AhOOgah!)

Audacity: Like the man said. There comes a time when it's the only thing that can see you through.

Comments

*Furiously scribbling notes* while reading.

Great post - and utterly on target!

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