American noir in the Scottish Highlands

I see from Guy Savage’s blog that a hitherto unknown novel by James M. Cain has been discovered. Whether it’ll match his finest work I don’t know, but if it does – or, for that matter, even if it doesn’t – it should be worth a read.

I retain vivid memories of my first encounter with James M Cain. It was in October 1989, when, out of season, we (that is, my wife and I) were driving around the Scottish Highlands.

October, admittedly, is not the usual time for touring the Scottish Highlands, but I’d recommend it: the light of the approaching winter lends to that stark and austerely beautiful landscape a dark and even, perhaps, a somewhat menacing aspect. Strange as it may seem, it was just the right atmosphere in which to read The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity: the Scottish Highlands may seem distant indeed from American noir, but somehow, the two seemed to complement each other: the sense of evil contained in these two short novels seemed all the more intense.

I had seen the films, of course. The Postman Always Rings Twice has been filmed twice, neither entirely satisfactorily: the 1946 film was flatly directed, and the casting of Lana Turner – lacking a strong screen personality even at best of times – in what was on paper one of the most powerful and dramatic of female roles proved disastrous. The 1981 version was better directed (by Bob Rafelson) and certainly better cast (Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson seemed almost made for these roles), but or some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, this one didn’t take off either.

Double Indemnity, of course, had fared somewhat better on film: Billy Wilder’s film is archetypal noir, and remains possibly my favourite thriller of all: it is hard to see how any aspect of this film could be bettered. But when I came to read it, I was in for a surprise: the film, scripted by Billy Wilder and by Raymond Chandler, no less, stays within the boundaries of the crime thriller: the book, on the other hand, slips almost imperceptibly into Grand Guignol. By the time we come to that ending, it is pure horror.

Of course, this story had been done before: wife and lover murdering husband had appeared most memorably perhaps in Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola, and in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. But Cain’s variations on this theme are every bit as remarkable, if not more so, than its illustrious predecessors. But I don’t think I have ever read anything more chilling than the final pages of Double Indemnity. And I am sure that the circumstances in which I read it added to the effect.

For, as we were driving near Loch Carron one afternoon along single-track mountain roads, a mist began to descend. The light was thickening, and the crows were making wing to the rooky wood; good things of day were beginning to droop and drowse, while night’s black agents … etc. etc. We had no option but to stop at what our road atlas indicated was a village.

That village consisted of a small railway station, a couple or so houses (one of which was marked a “Bed & Breakfast”), and a pub that, thankfully, served meals. Now, the temptation in describing this scene is to overdo it for dramatic effect, but there are times when real life seems to borrow a cliché or two from cinema and literature: I swear that it took a few knocks before the front door of the Bed & Breakfast creaked open slowly; I swear the lady of the house was an ancient, grey-haired lady who lived there on her own (or so she said!); I swear we were the only guests that night; and I swear that the house was full of cats. And we were, back in those days, a young, holidaying couple. Even the most cynical and jaded of scriptwriters may hesitate to pile on so many clichés on top of one another.

As if that weren’t enough, the bathroom, we discovered once we had checked in, was painted a vivid Hammer-horror read.

We had little choice. We tried taking a walk, but the darkness was descending. I attach a photograph I took on this walk with our not-too-expensive camera (this is before the days of digital cameras, of course): I doubt this would win any award for landscape photography, but it does capture the atmosphere of that time and that place as I remember it.

It was here that I read Double Indemnity. It is a short novel, and easily read in a few hours. I won’t give away anything of what happens in it in case you haven’t read it. And in case you haven’t, please do. Even if you’re not in a ghostly Bed & Breakfast on a dark October evening. I cannot think of any other novel, except – in their very different ways – Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Dostoyevsky’s Demons, that projects so powerful a sense of evil.

I’m afraid this is where my clichés run out. The night we spent was peaceful, and in the morning, the lady of the house proved indeed to be amiable and hospitable. She served us a fine breakfast, after which we paid up, and drove away. Not the ending that a scriptwriter would have chosen, no doubt, but true for all that.


8 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for the mention. I can see the parallels between the Scottish Highlands and noir. Have you seen the British Noir, The Clouded Yellow (1950)?


    • I saw “Clouded Yellow” many years ago, but I can’t say it made too much of an impression. I certainly don’t remember it too well. I do think, though, that when it came to gangster films, Britain matched even the best US gangster movies with the Boulting Brothers’ adaptation of Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock”, with a knockout performance from the young Richard Attenborough.


  2. Thanks Guy. And a very silly and careless error has now been corrected!


  3. Posted by alan on September 24, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    For a second there I thought that the owner of the bed and breakfast was going to be a young man who talked about ‘Mother’.
    I agree about the Highlands though – several people have mentioned a sense of evil when the mist is down near Glencoe.


    • There is something very eerie about Glencoe. That combination of the strange, dusky light, those peaks suddenly shooting up so steeply, and … and something else that one can’t quite put one’s finger on.


  4. Great photo btw


  5. Great picture you have posted that gives you the sense of mystery in the scottish highlands, glen coe when the mist is rolling down the mountains is fantastic.


  6. Thanks for that. As I say, I make no claims for my skills as a photographer, but that place on that evening really was as eerie as the photograph suggests.

    Glen Coe is stunningly beautiful, and yet, there is a powerful sense of … How shall I put it? … A powerful sense of the “eldritch” (is that a Scots word? I’m sure both Burns and Stevenson have used it). But if I had to name my favourite view, it is of the Cuillin Hills from Elgol in Skye. I really love the Highlands, and wish I were back there again…


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