Our old friend Mugs McGuiness did us another one of his many favors. When he heard about our ‘puter meltdown he sent over a box of used books, figuring that would cheer us up. Which it did. The man has fine taste in litrichur. We picked out of the box a slim Penguin paperback with yellowing pages that gave off the musty odor of long storage. Old age had set in. The book was printed 59 years ago, in February of 1947, and the copyright was dated 10 years earlier. But the hard-boiled writing itself smelled as fresh as our morning coffee. The story, beginning in Mexico City, revolves around an opera singer down on his luck and a Mexican prostitute of Aztec descent.
I was in the Tupinamba, having a bizcocho and coffee, when the girl came in. Everything about her said Indian, from the maroon rebozo to the black dress with purple flowers on it, to the swaying way she walked, that no woman ever got without carrying pots, bundles, and baskets on her head from the time she could crawl.
All you opera buffs know the author, right? If you don’t, have a close look at the cover. Here, from much later in the story, is an excerpt that really ought to tickle anyone with a feeling for music and especially anyone who can afford season tickets to the Met, where the scene of our hero’s comeback is set:
I made my debut in Lucia right after New Year’s, sang standard repertoire for a month, began to work in. It felt good to be back with the wops. Then I got my real chance when they popped me on three days’ notice into Don Giovanni. I had a hell of a time getting them to let me do the serenade my way, with a real guitar, and play it myself, without the orchestra. The score calls for a prop mandolin, and that’s the way the music is written, but I hate all prop instruments on the stage, and hate to play any scene where I have to use one. There’s no way you can do it that it doesn’t look phoney. I made a gain when I told them that the guitar was tradition, that Garcia used to do it that way, but I lost all that ground when somebody in the Taste Department decided that a real guitar would look too much like the Roxy, and for a day it was off again. Then I got Wurlitzer’s to help me out. They sent down an instrument that was a beauty. It was dark, dull spruce, without any pearl, nickel, or highlights on it of any kind, and it had a tone you could eat with a spoon. When I sounded off on that, that settled it.
I wanted to put it up a half tone, so I could get it in the key of three flats, but I didn’t. It’s in the key of two sharps, the worst key there is for a singer, especially the high F sharp at the end, that catches a baritone all wrong, and makes him sound coarse and ropy. The F sharp is not in the score, but it’s tradition and you have to sing it. God knows why Mozart ever put it in that key, unless it’s because two sharps is the best key there is for a mandolin, and he let his singer take the rap so he could bring the accompaniment to life.
But I tuned with the orchestra before the act started and did it strictly in the original key. I made two moves while I was singing it. Between verses I took one step nearer the balcony. At the end, I turned my back on the audience, stepped under the balcony and played the finish, not to them, but to her. On the F sharp, instead of covering up and getting it over quick, I did a messa di voce, probably the toughest order a singer ever tries to deliver. You start it p, swell to ff, pull back to p again, and come off it. My tone wasn’t round, but it was pure, and I got away with it all right. They broke into a roar, the bravos yipped out all over the house, and that was the beginning of this stuff that you read, that I was the greatest since Bispham, the peer of Scotti, and all the rest of it. Well, I was the peer of Scotti, or I hope I was. They’ve forgotten by now how bad Scotti really was. He could sing, and he was the greatest actor I ever saw, but his voice was just merely painful. What they paid no attention to at all, mentioned like it was nothing but a little added feature, was the guitar. You can talk about your fiddle, your piano, and your orchestra, and I’ve got nothing to say against them. But a guitar has moonlight in it.
You guessed it, dincha? That’s an excerpt from “Serenade,” by James M. Cain, right, who is best known of course as the author of the crime novels “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1934), “Double Indemnity” (1936), “Mildred Pierce” (1941) and more than a dozen others. Cain was a singer himself, or wanted to be — his mother was an opera singer — and he studied to become a professional before abandoning the idea of a musical career. He took up journalism instead. After serving on the front in France during World War I, he went to work at the Baltimore American and the Baltimore Sun. There, the reigning star of the Sun, H.L. Mencken, met him and encouraged his literary efforts.
Cain published his first piece for Mencken’s magazine, The American Mercury, in 1924. It was a nonfiction profile called “The Labor Leader,” which launched the magazine’s series of “American portraits.” Cain’s hard-boiled style is already evident: “He is recruited from people of the sort that nice ladies call common … the sort that mop up the plate with bread.” (Cited in fellow AJ blogger Terry Teachout’s Mencken biography “The Skeptic.”) Mencken also gave a boost to Cain’s career as a writer of fiction, publishing an early story, “Pastorale,” in the magazine in 1928.
Although Cain went to Hollywood as a screenwriter after stints at The New York World and The New Yorker (where he was managing editor), and though his fame, such as it is, rests on the Hollywood movies adapted from his best-known crime thrillers — “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946 and 1981), “Double Indemnity” (1944 and, for television, 1973) and “Mildred Pierce” (1945) — he had nothing to do with those screen versions. The novels they were based on are not just different from the movies, but better. So says Mugs McGuiness.
“Serenade,” too, was made into a movie. It was released in 1956, directed by Anthony Mann and starring Mario Lanza as the opera singer. Oy. We’ve never seen it, thank God, and can’t imagine it being any good. Dawn Powell’s comment about the novel, in a review in the New Republic when “Serenade” first appeared — “There is nightmare material here for a whole winter” — might apply, though not as she meant it.
One other thing (and we hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read “Serenade” but wants to): Cain’s noir take on homosexuality, which underscores a major plot twist, has the limitations of a pre-Kinsey phobia — to say nothing of today’s “Brokeback Mountain” sentiments. Don’t be alarmed.
— Tireless Staff of Thousands