Firstly, allow me to welcome a writer I've admired for a good while now...
Nigel Bird's Crime Fiction Choice is The Baby In The Icebox by James M. Cain.
The Baby In The Icebox. What a title. It’s like an irresistible newspaper headline. Imagine seeing it in the rack if you were, say, stopping off at the services to fill your car with fuel; I’d wager you’d buy yourself a copy or take a sneaky look at the very least.
It’s also the way this story opens, our man about to tell us the real story. The one behind the newspaper articles.
Cain’s roots were in journalism, so maybe that should be no surprise at either of these things.
For lovers of James M, the setting here is likely to be familiar, though this story comes just before ‘Postman’, first published as it was in 1933.
We’re just off a highway at a stop-off. There’s a diner and a gas station. A couple run it and a there’s our odd-job man who both observes what happens and is also right in the middle of things.
Where we stray from ‘Postman’ is that Duke, owner of the place, has the idea of getting hold of some wildcats to draw in custom. The introduction of the characters to the wildcats tells us pretty much all we need to know about them, though we’ll know far more before things close.
It’s not long before the menagerie has expanded to include mountain lions and a tiger. Not that it’s helping the business.
Duke sees himself as some kind of Tarzan, a fearless man able to command ferocious animals with his eyes. Thing is, he’s the only pussy-cat in the place and needs a gun on his back before he’ll go in with his pets.
His wife, Lura, on the other hand, is able to control them with her presence. Cain describes Lura as a tigress, the way her eyes are the same as the cat’s and the way she scratches and wondering paws in the diner with a slash of her nails. The comparison is wonderfully drawn. Lura is powerful, sexy and has something of the wanderlust of the feline. She also has a heart.
It’s about the time that Duke takes to his own wanderings in search of cats that Wild Bill Smith The Texas Tornado shows up. He’s a fake snake-doctor, but he’s not a bad guy.
One thing leads to another. Me, I’d have willingly swapped places with Bill, any day of the week. So would our narrator, if given half a chance.
The baby of the title comes along as a result of these encounters and where the icebox fits in, you’ll just have to read it and find out for yourself. All I’ll say is that Duke isn’t too happy when he discovers the baby isn’t his and decides to use Rajah the tiger as the ultimate murder weapon.
So, what have we got in the story that makes it essential reading?
First of all, we have the title. Mind-blowing.
Next we have voice. Cain slips into character like an actor. He’s similar to later creations, but unique enough. The narrator is sharp. A bright guy. Knows the ropes and probably his alphabet too. There’s something of the street and the country about his language, but it’s only a little rough around the edges.
Our setting is vivid. The isolation creates and intensity when required and makes the unusual lives and goings on highly plausible. The characters are as much part of the fabric as the house and the cages and their interactions describe place brilliantly. Everything’s vivid even when not fully fleshed out. For me, it’s visual and at the same time gives all my senses a work out along the way.
And the people, they’re as real as I am, so much so that it’s like an actual event he’s describing.
There are many ‘how to write’ books out there. If you check out ‘The Baby In The Icebox and other short fiction’, you might just save yourself a few bob on those.
You might also find yourself wanting to write something just as great; that I’m afraid is something most of us can pretty much forget.
Read and weep.
Buy The Baby In The Icebox here.
Find out more about talented author, Nigel Bird at his popular blog, Sea Minor.