Midway through the novel Mildred Pierce, the title character takes her famously awful daughter Veda to audition for a new piano teacher. Charlie Hannen has been recommended by some society types that the snobbish Veda cultivates. Hannen is not cowed by Veda’s airs and, unlike Mildred, he is not blinded by a mother’s love when it comes to her musical potential. Yet he is impressed almost in spite of himself when Veda improvises during a Rachmaninoff piece, changing a chord and saying—petulantly, according to the text, one of those rare adverbs that earns its keep—that she has always wanted to play it that way.

Hannen ponders this.

“And suppose you did play it that way. You’d be in a little trouble, don’t you think?’ He played another chord or two. “Where do you go from there?”

Veda played a few more chords, and he carefully played them after her. Then he nodded. “Yes, it could have been written that way. I really think Mr. Rachmaninoff’s way is better—I find a slight banality in yours, don’t you?”

“What’s banality, sir?”

“I mean it sounds corny. Cheap. Play it an octave higher and put a couple of trills in it, it would be Listen to the Mockingbird almost before you know it.”

Veda played it an octave higher, twiddled a trill, did a bar of Listen to the Mockingbird and got very red. “Yes, sir, I guess you’re right.”

“But it makes musical sense.”

Veda’s intuitive grasp of musical theory amazes Hannen and is enough to persuade him to take her on as a student. He notes that she may not have much in her fingers—he compares her tone to a xylophone that fell in love with a hand organ—but she definitely has something in her head. Yet it was her head that betrayed her, leading her to an arrangement that sounds like a treacle-y version of a mid-19th century love song. Could it be that intellect, in spite of itself, yearns for sentiment and symmetry?

I have probably read Mildred Pierce at least 15 times over the last 30 years and I always linger on this wonderful passage, which seems to sum up Cain’s own aesthetic. In his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain famously eliminated as many “saids” as possible from his dialogue. He later noted: “Why all the saysing? With quotes around it, would they be gargling it?” Mildred Pierce, his fourth novel, jettisons sacrosanct notions of maternal love. Mildred’s love for Veda, borders on the unnatural. When her younger daughter, Rae, dies from a freakish fever, Mildred suffers no Sophie’s Choice–like dilemma; she admits to herself that she’s glad it was Veda who was spared.

I think it’s this lack of sentimentality that separates Cain from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, two writers to whom he was often compared, much to his frustration. The not-so-secret dirty little secret of hard-boiled fiction is that it’s awash in sentiment; those tough guys, for all their intelligence, can be the biggest suckers of all. Cain always wrote tough, pragmatic women—Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Phyllis in Double Indemnity. Mildred Pierce doesn’t have their homicidal impulses, but she’s just as tough.

Mildred is a “grass widow,” a Depression-era woman abandoned—but not divorced—by her feckless husband. Whether she’s calculating how to stretch a few dollars into feeding her children for a week or contemplating how to ensnare her husband’s friend and lawyer into keeping her, she’s levelheaded and seldom self-pitying. When the lawyer finds a way to wiggle out of the domestic trap she has set for him, for example, she smashes an empty wine bottle and that’s it. The next day, she starts looking for a job.

Initially, she rejects a waitress job, believing it beneath her—and certainly beneath Veda, who yearns to escape working-class Glendale, California, for the near, yet oh-so-far-away Pasadena. But when it becomes clear that waitressing is her only option, Mildred goes to work in a diner. There, she begins to sell her pies and, eventually, plan her own restaurant. The dream is quickly realized and she expands, adding branches in Beverly Hills and Laguna. She also enters into an on-again, off-again relationship with Monty Beragon, a wellborn if financially strapped polo player who epitomizes the life to which Veda aspires. When Veda, now a young woman, renounces her mother with outrageous cruelty, Mildred matter-of-factly uses Monty to lure her back, seducing him and marrying him as if he were just another chicken-and-waffle restaurant in her growing empire.

Bad things happen—financial misdeeds, adultery, skullduggery—building to a climax worthy of the most outrageous telenovela. I cannot bear to spoil these events for the as-yet-uninitiated reader, but it gives away nothing to note that the book ends with a wonderful line. “Let’s get stinko.”

Todd Haynes’s miniseries version of Mildred Pierce, which is faithful to the book, has television critics wrestling with Veda’s thoroughgoing awfulness. Wouldn’t it be more interesting, some have asked, if Veda were less of a monster? I don’t think so. We have become so certain that “Art” finds empathy for all its characters, we forget that villains have their uses. Veda’s bad because she’s bad. I don’t doubt that she has a side to the story, but Cain wasn’t interested in telling it. Mildred Pierce, in his words, was a story about a woman who used men to get what she wanted. That what she wanted was the love of a child who hated her—well, that was Cain’s inspiration and it’s what makes the novel interesting.

The 1945 Joan Crawford film version, still most vivid in the public imagination for now, revamped the novel with great success, elevating Mildred from pragmatic roundheels to saintly supermom, while downgrading Veda from coloratura soprano to nightclub singer. As Hannen said of Veda’s attempt to impose order on Rachmaninoff, throw in a few trills and you have “Listen to the Mockingbird.” No one will ever accuse Cain’s Mildred Pierce of corny sentiment or banality. Like its titular character, it is hardheaded and practical, focused on the details of everyday survival.