Surf, sand and tales of murder a good mix

July 21, 2005|By KEVIN COWHERD

SINCE THIS IS a full-service column dedicated to helping the reader at all times, I'm going to do you a huge favor today.

I'm going to recommend two books to take to the beach this summer. And here's a guarantee: these will be the two best books you've ever read at the beach, period.

These books are so good, you won't be able to put them down.

You'll spend the whole day in your little beach chair reading, and when you finally finish, it'll be dusk and the only people around will be a couple of old guys in undershirts and Bermuda shorts with those stupid metal detectors.

But you won't care - that's how engrossing these books are.

OK, here we go. The two best books you'll ever read at the beach are The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, both by James M. Cain.

Go buy these books right now. You can get them in paperback for about 10 bucks each.

If you can't buy them, check them out of the library.

The only problem there is, you're going to love these two books so much, you'll want to keep them. So you won't return them when they're due. Then the library will start calling, and you'll start ducking their calls, and pretty soon they'll get the police involved.

Or, at the very least, lawyers.

Then, with my luck, you'll drag me into the whole mess.

If you don't know who James M. Cain is, you're not alone and you're not a dummy, because he's one of the most overlooked great writers of all time.

He was born in Annapolis in 1892 and served in World War I as a reporter for an Army newspaper, and was a reporter for The Sun before and after that.

But he's really known for being a master of hard-boiled crime fiction.

"A poet of the tabloid murder" is how the literary critic Edmund Wilson described him.

When he was at the top of his game, Cain was absolutely incapable of writing a boring sentence. And The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity were Cain at the very top of his game.

The Postman was published in 1934 and promptly banned in Canada and Boston, where it was deemed too violent and too sexual for decent citizens.

It's the story of a sadistic drifter who has an affair with the steamy young wife of a diner owner. The two lovers promptly decide to knock him off and make it look like an accident.

Maybe you saw the 1946 movie version starring Lana Turner, or the 1981 remake starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.

Now read the book. The book is pure magic. The writing is taut and vivid and oozes menace, as when ne'er-do-well hobo Frank Chambers first lays eyes on sultry Cora Papadakis:

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn't any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

The dialogue crackles with intensity. And the story, one of lust, deception, betrayal and revenge, seems as fresh and compelling now as it must have 71 years ago.

Take this baby to the beach with you. Believe me, a shark could leap out of the water and start gnawing on your leg - and you still wouldn't put this book down.

Although The Postman is my favorite Cain novel, Double Indemnity, published less than two years later, is equally riveting. It, too, was made into a movie, an excellent one released in 1944 that starred Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. Another titan of crime fiction, Raymond Chandler, wrote the screenplay.

Once again, the plot revolves around an adulterous couple bent on murder, only this time it's part of a insurance scam they hope to pull off. If anything, the moral landscape here is even more rocky and bleak, the lovers even more cynical and emotionally bankrupt.

Early in the book, they discuss the impending killing in the calm, dispassionate tones of two people looking over a menu in a restaurant.

"What would you do this for?"

"You, for one thing."

"What else?"

"Money."

"You mean you would - betray your company, and help me do this, for me, and the money we could get out of it?"

"I mean just that. And you better say what you mean, because when I start, I'm going to put it through, straight down the line, and there won't be any slips. But I've got to know. Where I stand. You can't fool - with this.

James M. Cain died in 1977 in Hyattsville. But these two wonderful books live on, shining examples of the best of the roman noir, or "black novel."

Take them with you to the beach. You won't be able to put either one down - even for the sharks.

I guarantee that, too.

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