James M. Cain had a long and distinguished literary career (died 1977), but I never got around to reading anything but The Postman Always Rings Twice. In fact, I’m not sure I ever really read it, or just knew the title and saw a movie or something. I picked up The Root of His Evil out of curiosity and discovered once again that noir is nothing new.
Carrie Selden is known in the press as “The Modern Cinderella” because of her rise from rags to riches. Indeed, she’s writing her story from the deck of a sloop anchored in the Caribbean. She wants, she says, to “correct false impressions.”
What she’s doing on that sloop and what those “false impressions” are consume the narrative. She’s pretty and ambitious, looking for ways to rise from her waitress job in NYC to something better. Opportunities come in the form of a dynamic union organizer, who hankers for romance, and a rich guy who’s the opposite of dynamic–all thumbs and elbows. Carrie doesn’t know he’s rich, but still sees possibilities.
No author has written a more reliable narrator, one who understands her own ruthlessness and makes no excuses. Carrie has a lust for money, which sees as a path to power and security. Furthermore, she hates being imprisoned in her class. Nothing wrong with any of that, except she never makes her quest romantic or noble. She’s bare knuckles and cold-blooded. Occasionally she regrets the harm she brings to her victims, but not enough to sway her from her relentless quest for control.
At any rate, by the end, I still don’t know what false impressions she was trying to correct. It seems to me she probably confirmed whatever negative public reputation she had before she started writing. There’s a crucial scene at the end where the rich guy does something completely out of character and, to my mind, not justified by the writing. This may be a moment of unreliability for Carrie. Whatever the case, if you meet this particular Cinderella, I’d advise staying out of the way. She’s as soon run you over in her coach as look at you.