The Institute by James M. Cain
Originally published in 1976
Professor Lloyd Palmer loves a good biography. His fantasy is to start an institute to teach young scholars the biographical arts, and it will take old money to make his dreams come true. Around Washington, the oldest money is found not in the District, but in Delaware, a land of wealth so astonishing that even the Du Ponts are considered nouveau riche. But when the professor goes to Wilmington, he comes away not with old money, but young trouble. Her name is Hortense Garrett. She is his benefactor’s wife, a twenty-something beauty trapped in an unhappy marriage, whose good looks conceal the most cunning mind this side of the Potomac. She needs a ride to Washington, and Lloyd offers to give her a lift. They’ve barely left Delaware before he falls for her. By the time they hit the Beltway, his biography will be in her hands.
I briefly contemplated skipping over writing up my thoughts on The Institute. For one thing it is barely a crime novel. Still, it is a noir-ish work and the blurb is suggestive (or derivative) enough of some of Cain’s early classic setups that some may be tempted to give it a go. Given how few reviews of this there seem to be floating around, I thought I owe it to any of those potential readers to save them some time and money: The Institute is an absolute turkey of a book.
The setup is that Dr. Lloyd Palmer, a university English teacher, has a whizz-bang idea to start an institute devoted to aiding those seeking to write biographies of American figures. His thinking is that biography is one of the great American literature forms and that they could provide financial support and resources to aid scholars in their work. He approaches multi-millionaire Richard Garrett to convince him to provide the funding and quickly wins him over. The stumbling block comes in the form of Garrett’s beautiful wife, Hortense, who refuses to relocate to Washington D.C. to serve as the President of the foundation.
Richard suggests Lloyd drive her into the city and try to win her over on the way. Instead the pair end up lovers. So begins an awkward love triangle in which the pair have to keep their relationship secret as they work together to get this Institute off the ground. This begs a number of questions: Will Richard find out? What will he do if he does? And will you even care by that point?
The Institute was the last of Cain’s novels to be published in his lifetime, just a few months before his death, and it is a pale shadow of his classic works. As with many of his stories the focus is on a seemingly doomed relationship between two young people, one of whom is in a loveless marriage, the other having a business relationship with the husband. It’s a setup found in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity – and also the much inferior work The Magician’s Wife (which, incidentally, reads like a classic compared with this). This was not necessarily a poor choice – Cain typically renders tortured, self-destructive love affairs quite well – but this is handled badly from start to finish.
One of the biggest problems with the book for me lay with the way that relationship between Lloyd and Hortense begins and develops. In those early classic works, Cain presents us with couplings that it is clear we are meant to view as destructive. In Postman, Frank and Cora are greedy and vicious with a mutual appetite for destruction. Their lust for each other is evident from the start and gives that book much of its power and the reader will likely be wanting to see them brought down by the end.
With Double Indemnity we have a similar situation. The reader may feel a little sympathy for Walter by the end of the book but the ending of that book feels right given the scenario. Here however Cain seems unsure whether to present the affair as something the reader wants to see punishment for or something to be resolved happily. It gives the book a confusing, uncertain tone, only settling on a side in its final few chapters. Unfortunately I felt that Cain picks the wrong one, leaving this reader feeling thoroughly unsatisfied.
One of the reasons for that is that I was repulsed by the manner in which the coupling begins. Hortense describes it as ‘rape’ – a descriptor Lloyd agrees with and repeatedly uses throughout the book – and things are not improved by the suggestion that she wanted it to happen. Cain played with this line before in earlier works but there it was clear that those relationships were negative and destructive. We are fascinated by those couples but it is obvious that we are waiting to see how they will be doomed. Here however the pair become trapped in a rather awkward, albeit somewhat sadomasochistic, domestic relationship.
The only tension then comes with the question of what will happen if and when Richard finds out. Cain keeps dangling that idea out for the reader, hoping that it will keep the pages turning as we await for that inevitable explosion when our protagonists suddenly losing control of events. I think that might have worked had the focus fallen on exploring the mental state of our pair of lovers. Instead though Cain decides to expound upon Shakespearian sonnet writing, the mechanics of starting a not-for-profit foundation, the popular conception of the Confederacy in the South and congressional corruption.
If that set of very specific interests captures your imagination you may find things to enjoy about The Institute. I do wonder though precisely how much of Cain’s audience that was likely to be. I will note for the record that I have a moderate amount of interest in several of those topics and I still found this quite tedious.
Are there bright spots? Sure. Cain’s prose may not be quite as muscular as in his earliest efforts but he can still turn a good phrase – just expect them much less frequently than before. I will also add that I think Cain’s enthusiasm for the biography as an art form is quite persuasive.
It’s not only a far cry from Cain at his best, it’s also pretty far from mediocre Cain. If you are desperate to read everything he ever wrote then this will certainly tick that box but otherwise I would avoid.