My second James M. Cain in a couple of weeks (see The Root of His Evil), and judging by these two, you don’t want to be one of his protagonists. Like Carrie in Root, Roger Duval in Past All Dishonour, is a rather undistinguished sort. In his case, he’s in Sacramento as a confederate spy during the civil war. Far from the action, a sort of leftover from a failed expedition seeking to establish a western secessionist republic. He’s devoted to the cause, but easily distracted. The distraction that will become central to the novel appears soon after the soon after the beginning in the person of a femme fatale named Morina. They help one another out of a tight spot surrounding a purse snatching she’s committed.
Roger has some pangs of conscience for aiding and abetting a criminal, but he’s the very definition of smitten, so he overcomes the pangs without a great deal of trouble. After a few days of bliss, however, Morina inexplicably disappears. What’s a smitten guy to to but follow? And follow he does–up the river, over the Sierra, and into the roaring silver town of Virginia City, Nevada. And, guess what? Morina’s a star prostitute and wants nothing to do with him despite the fact that they love one another. Or at least it appears so sometimes.
Roger determines to stay the course till he convinces Morina to leave with him. Since Virginia City’s all about mining, drinking, and whoring, he does multiple stints in all these venues. Give it to Cain, too, for his research on mining techniques and materials because we go deep, deep underground. And he deeper Roger goes, the deeper he gets into activities his conscience would never have borne earlier. Like Carrie, he turns ruthless and immoral as his obsession with his love intensifies.
There’s a lot of wild west excitement as the drama churns toward its conclusion, which is quite different from the way Root ends. In success or failure, though, Cain’s protagonists remain always devoted to their goals. Feelings or morals be damned. Sometimes it pays off. Sometimes not.