James M. Cain seems to be more of a sex writer than a crime writer. Sure, every novel has its mandatory murder, but so much more of his novels centre on a rather twisted sexuality.
Serenade is a good example. Written in 1937, it’s a strange mix of art, sex and violence.
Opera singer John Howard Sharpe picks up Indian-Mexican prostitute Juana Montes in a bar. The two decide to hook up and run a brothel together. Then plans change, the ‘couple’ goes to America, and John Howard Sharpe revives his career as a singer. Suddenly he’s a big name again, with oodles of fame as a film star. Despite his success, he soon gets sick and tired of Hollywood and wants to get out of a lucrative film contract. Enter conductor Winston Hawe, a fruity young homosexual who, we must assume, seduces John Howard Sharpe. Sharpe himself says that about 5% of every male is pre-disposed to homosexuality. It just takes the right person to bring it out.
Anyway, Juana finds out about this affair and, to cut a long story short, kills Winston Hawe with a spear at one of the conductor’s more outre parties. On the run, Juana is herself shot in the street.
I couldn’t really figure out what the theme of this short novel was. It seems like an old ruse, that the manipulative homosexual gets killed. Yet this isn’t some malicious anti-gay novel. James M. Cain comes across as quite sophisticated on sexual matters. The effect is a more pagan-poetical one.
Yet as I said at the outset, I don’t know what the author was really trying to say. The novelist’s first person narrator, John Howard Sharpe, is both pretty racist (towards Juana, his girlfriend-prostitute) and homophobic (he uses the pejoratives ‘pixie’ and ‘fag’). And despite this these are the two main characters he has sex with – both of whom die violent deaths.
One thing I guess we can be pretty sure of – James M. Cain has a dark, disturbing view of sexuality.
A gripping read. Very much recommended!