The Magician’s Wife by James M. Cain

Book Details

Originally published in 1965

The Blurb

For the love of a beautiful waitress, a meat salesman will turn butcher.

Clay Lockwood enters the Portico with corned beef on his mind. He’s a top distributing executive with Grant’s Meats, and the contract with the Portico restaurant chain is only the latest in a long line of boardroom coups. He comes for lunch, and eats his fill of his company’s beef, but leaves with an entirely different hunger gnawing at his gut—a volcanic passion that will tear him apart.

The hostess’s name is Sally Alexis, a magician’s wife whose rough-hewn charm mesmerizes this magnate of meat. She rebuffs his first pass, but calls him up later, to explain her situation and plead for tenderness. Although her marriage is miserable, she’s won’t leave her husband because she wants to secure an inheritance for her little boy. As the lovers get closer, Lockwood becomes an amateur illusionist himself, focusing on one very particular trick—how to make a magician disappear.

The Verdict

A disappointing rehash of Cain’s earliest classics. Though it starts strong enough, it stumbles onto its ending. Recommended for Cain completists only.

She’ll be a Merry Widow, that we know for sure, but not with your help. Do you hear?

My Thoughts

Clay Lockwood is a businessman who sells readymade meals to restaurants. He is dining at the Portico restaurant where he meets Sally Alexis, who is working as the hostess. Sally charms him when she refers to him by name, in spite of never having been introduced, and the two flirt for a while. When he makes a hard pass at her though she admits that she’s married and turns him down, frustrating Lockwood. Later on though Sally calls him to explain about her circumstances and arranges to meet up in secret.

When back at Clay’s pad he declares that he wants Sally to leave her husband and marry him. She says that she can’t as she feels that she must stay in her unhappy marriage for the sake of her young son who is supposed to come into an inheritance. It soon becomes clear that Sally is angling for Clay to take action, a move he initially resists, but he finds his willpower weakens with each meeting…

The Magician’s Wife is a fine example of pastiche fiction, evoking memories of some of the famous early works of James M. Cain. The premise feels evocative of The Postman Always Rings Twice and also Double Indemnity at times, both novels which I really enjoy. The unfortunate thing though is that the novel is written by Cain himself.

The reason that this is unfortunate is that while this is incredibly readable, featuring plenty of examples of Cain’s lean and muscular prose, when an author so consciously revisits the ideas and themes of an early work you want to see something different to show either their evolution as a writer or presenting those ideas in a new way to comment on them. Instead he just presents us with what feels like an reprise performance.

Clay Lockwood is a pretty solid example of the typical Cain protagonist, exuding a powerful machismo and decisiveness as well as an inability to repress desire that will clearly be the source of all his trouble. His introduction to the story where we see him in action exerting his power over a restaurant owner, bullying him into signing a contract with his company, gives us a strong sense of who he is and what he wants from life. This suits Cain’s style of storytelling as he is a pretty straightforward character, allowing for some pretty direct storytelling.

One of the few things that does distinguish this story from those two earlier classics is that Cain allows Clay to have an active (and similarly forceful) internal monologue. An example of this can be seen in the quotation precededing these thoughts where Clay tells himself that Sally is clearly planning to be a widow and that he should not be a part of that. It’s a semi-effective technique, allowing for some foreshadowing and highlighting that Clay knows the consequences of his actions, but its effectiveness decreases once the crucial decisions are taken and so it gets used with less frequency.

Sally is a pretty typical Cain femme fatale, knowingly using her sexual appeal to encourage a man to act recklessly on her behalf. Readers should not anticipate really getting to know her beyond the demands of that role however – we get little sense of her likes or interests, nor of any deeper connection between the two. This has bothered me in some of Cain’s previous work but at least in those cases I understood the core reasons for the attraction, either based on the situation or the lovers’ personalities. Here I get why Sally needs Clay, I am much less clear on why he gives in to her.

One of the reasons for that uncertainty is that before the murder takes place we have already seen Clay become interested in another woman, Sally’s mother, creating a rather bizarre triangle. This seems like it may be intended to shock readers but it really just left me baffled about what Clay is wanting and expecting from life. It suddenly takes away his most interesting character trait, his decisiveness, and renders him rather weak and pathetic and makes all three characters harder to relate to.

While I have issues with understanding the reasons characters act as they do in this story, Cain does a splendid job of showing how Clay and Sally plot out the murder and describing the events of that evening. There is plenty of detail to their plan and while there are some parts that feel a little sloppy or poorly conceived, I found that only made that process more credible. The reader will notice that there are plenty of loose ends for an investigation to seize upon, the question is which of these will be important and how they will be connected.

This brings us to the other aspect of the story where Cain does attempt to do something a little bit different – the events leading up to the ending. Though undoubtedly cut from a similar storytelling cloth to his other efforts, Clay’s path to destruction is a little different. It is unfortunate though that in trying to figure out a different path in this middle phase of the novel, the often quite convoluted plotting choices seem to fly in the face of that powerful, direct storytelling that is the author’s hallmark.

This is a shame because I think the core ideas explored in Clay’s downfall are not uninteresting and are arguably the most distinctive feature of this novel. The problem then is not the idea but the way in which those ideas are introduced. I think that there were ways that Cain could have explored those ideas in a more direct and more characteristically Cain-ish way.

As much as I hoped to like The Magician’s Wife, and I did like parts of it, it was this stumbling onto the ending that was its most disappointing feature. The result is a work that lacks Cain’s usual polish, feeling a bit like a stale remix. It isn’t a patch on either of those earlier classic works and I can really only recommend it to Cain completists.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Get Out of Jail Free (It’s A Kind of Magic) category as a Silver Age read.

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