by James M. Cain
In this story of incest and mistaken identity set in the coal-mining hills of Appalachia, a man estranged from his family for many years finds himself fatally attracted to his daughter when he meets her for the first time as a grown woman. This edition includes an introduction by Cain describing how he arrived at the idea for this novel and several others.
The Butterfly by James M. Cain was first published in 1946. It takes place among the hills and hollers of West Virginia coal country. Cain uses his favorite form of narration, the first person confessional, in relating this unusual tale of deceit, incest and murder.
“Hard, lean, nicely weighted. The pitch is just right and the pace is the Cain pace, sustained and pressing, like a hound on scent.”
~Saturday Review of Literature
I picked this up because it was set in Appalachia, my ancestors on mom’s side were Appalachians. Although this book is set around the border of Kentucky and West Virginia and we are from East Tennessee. Cain was known as a ‘hardboiled’ American writer and wrote several big books, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. All of these made into movies, which I’ve seen. I had never read one of his novels though. A short book at 120 pages, I thought it would be a good introduction. Although with incest being the main subject you wouldn’t know that this book is listed as a mystery! It does have elements of mystery and murder.
The Preface by Cain was interesting and he states that he basically started working on this book in 1922 when he made a trip down to the Big Sandy area along the Kentucky-WVA state-line to work in the mines and study the area and utilize its ‘beautiful bleak ugliness’ for the locale of a novel dealing with mine wars. After years of working on notes, story outlines etc. and getting sidetracked by other projects he finally published this little novel in 1947.
After reading the preface and reviews of his work, I was excited to start. I have to say though that I was highly disappointed! I read it in one day. It kept me turning the page, I think more because of the subject matter and the hint that all was not as it seemed, than anything, but in the end when I closed the book I felt let down. Maybe the writing was good and it was the subject matter that was not very satisfying. The mountain people didn’t come across to me at all sympathetic and the locale wasn’t brought vivid in my mind. I grew up with Grandma’s insinuations that incest was a problem in the back mountain country among the ‘hillbilly’s’. Maybe the portrayal was dead on and there is no redeeming quality to the characters or this tale. I really don’t know what to think or say. There is deceit, moonshining, and murder. The incest part wasn’t really ‘foul’ or overdone by any means. Not sure if I’d tell you to read it or not. BUT, I’d be real interested in your thoughts on it if you did read it!!
Have you read anything by Cain and what did you think?
There is a movie made from this book starring Pia Zadora and Stacy Keach available to stream on Amazon and a BBC radio drama of it too – you can listen here.
Counting this towards Cloak and Dagger!