Review by C.J. Bunce
Readers will expect plenty from the author of such notable noir novels as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce. James M. Cain wrote several works after these classics, both in and outside the genre. But his last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, was never published–Cain instead found himself re-writing it and never giving the final handoff to the agent and publisher in a form he was happy with. That is, until Hard Case Crime tracked it down, and writer/editor Charles Ardai took all the sometimes competing bits and pieces and edited into a final novel, first published in 2012.
The fun of The Cocktail Waitress is Cain’s writing choices, and the unknown quantity is wondering how much was truly Cain’s preferred words and sections, and how close Ardai’s edit is to Cain’s original vision. Cain, who many consider one of the greats of the crime genre along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (who co-scripted the screenplay to the film adaptation of Cain’s Double Indemnity), presents a slow-simmering story of a femme fatale told from the first-person perspective of that femme fatale. Unfortunately the story never quite catches fire until the final four chapters, and really sets ablaze in a bombshell in the final paragraph of the final page. The cocktail waitress of the title is Joan Medford, a 21-year-old housewife we meet upon learning of her husband’s death. Her husband was an alcoholic and abusive to her and her son, and he died in a car wreck after storming out of the house drunk. Or was he? Police repeatedly return to question her. Cain’s struggling heroine is easy to empathize with, but the circumstances in which she finds herself prompt the reader to question whether she is lying to us, lying to herself, or maybe she is just one of Cain’s hapless victims of the multiple blows that life deals out.
Joan leaves her son with a relative and lands a job as a cocktail waitress. Her goal is to be able to afford to take care of her son again. She befriends two men who are customers at work, a wealthy older man named Mr. White, and a young, attractive bad boy named Tom who is reckless and doesn’t understand his own stupidity. As she describes herself and her actions, Joan does not seem the architect of her own trajectory, but she also is conscious of not letting any man determine her fate. The men seem to pursue paths with her that she seemingly is also considering, and she goes along, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Her character lacks some consistency, which may be a fault more of the nature of a final, pieced together novel. She seems sensible and wise, as most people tell themselves about their own actions. Yet she physically attacks a man at work for acting inappropriately, with little preparation for the reader. She makes a business deal that risks her nest egg. She takes actions that risk her job. So there is an impulsive side to her, but is she the kind of person that would murder someone, and not just one husband, but other men, too? What will she do, and how far will she go, for her son? Can we trust her? Can we trust Cain?
The Cocktail Waitress feels like a movie in black and white, perhaps with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead as Joan. At points the story may veer into Lolita territory, and is paced most similarly to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Is Joan a very clever Black Widow? And if she is successful–landing the man she wants, the money she needs, and a home and security for her son–will Cain allow her to truly be victorious? The Cocktail Waitress, at its core, is the kind of story one could see Quentin Tarantino adapting to film in the style of Jackie Brown simply by adjusting the decade and modifying the ending. It’s a good base story that could use some tweaking.
The story includes one unfortunate gimmick, which would have been a brilliant story element had the story been written a decade prior to Cain’s completion of the draft of the novel in 1975 at the age of 83. That gimmick’s success requires the reader to have knowledge of the history of the drug thalidomide, known to Cain and the world for its horrible side effects at the time of the writing, but not to the characters back in the 1960s of his story. One wonders if Cain knew that this story detail was, indeed, too much for the story, or whether this was simply the story he wanted to tell. The final chapters are certainly consistent with the shock and characters he became known for early in his career. Plus, Cain has a better grasp on women than many of his contemporaries–Joan is a well-rounded person who makes her share of wise moves and bad ones, and not because of her sex.
A must-read for James M. Cain completists, and an interesting addition to the crime novel library, The Cocktail Waitress is available here in paperback and here in audiobook, at Amazon. The novel will be satisfying for those noir readers who like to settle down for a slow read in a seedy town with its dark corners, circa 1960-something.
This one is a bit of a slow build-up, especially compared to Cain’s best-known work. However, it’s an intriguing case of the unreliable narrator and well worth reading, as you pointed out.