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The Cocktail Waitress


The Cocktail Waitress

The publication of THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS is the most important literary event of 2012. It is the last and long-lost novel by the great James M. Cain, author of such classics as MILDRED PIERCE, DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. This book marks the greatest achievement of Hard Case Crime in its short existence.

Any new work by Cain would be significant. He, along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, was part of the big three who created the hard-boiled pulp fiction genre in the 1930s and 1940s. His material also helped give birth to film noir. Somewhere in the world today, somebody is watching and enjoying a classic noir film based on Cain’s writing.

But what’s especially significant is that THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS is a brilliant work of noir fiction in its own right. This is not just some minor Cain work found in the bottom of a closet in Peoria. In 1975, Cain was 83 years old and dying, suffering from the angina that would kill him in two years. His literary star had long since burned out. The world had moved on as it always does and left Cain behind. His Hollywood glory days were gone, and he had returned to his childhood home state of Maryland. But he did not just sit around and bitterly await the end. Years ago, another great writer still going strong, Pete Hamill, told me the essential truth about writers: writers write. Nothing else matters for us --- not money, fame, or success.

And so Cain sat down and started writing one last great noir story. The book was never published during his lifetime. Indeed, with literary discoveries such as this, the story of how the book finally reached the light of day is often the greatest mystery of all. Cain left behind several drafts, scattered scenes, notes, story fragments written by hand on pieces of papers. He was a relentless writer in terms of trying different things and tinkering endlessly with endings, and this was decades before computers made editing so neat.

"The publication of THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS is the most important literary event of 2012.... This book marks the greatest achievement of Hard Case Crime in its short existence."

Enter Charles Ardai. For Ardai, editor and publisher of Hard Case Crime, it would be a nine-year odyssey of searching for, editing and finally publishing The Cocktail Waitress. Cain’s legions of fans are lucky that his final work landed in the loving hands of a true fan of his work. We are also fortunate to find an editor as meticulous and skilled as Ardai. As many living authors can attest, Ardai is a close reader with an instinctual understanding of how noir plot works. The result here is a Cain novel that ranks right up there with anything the author ever wrote in his prime. And in saying that, it is better than a lot of what gets published today.

This is no doubt a Cain work. He returns at the end to the themes that marked his greatest hard-boiled novels: economic deprivation, greed, sexual obsession, desperate people living on the edge, murder. This is a timeless story; don’t expect any references to disco or the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Cain creates a timeless, claustrophobic nightmare that will rock you long after you put it down.

In the cinematic versions of his classic work, Cain’s heroines were played by the greatest film noir actresses, such as Joan Crawford, Lana Turner and Barbara Stanwyck. And Joan Medford, the cocktail waitress in this book, is a sister under the mink, as another great noir icon --- Gloria Grahame --- once said, with those other women.

When our story begins, Joan is at the funeral of her first husband, who died under somewhat questionable circumstances, according to the police. She is dead broke with no prospects and has lost the ability to support her beloved young son and temporarily lost him to her evil sister-in law. So like Mildred Pierce, she has to take a waitress job. And like Nora in Postman, she will marry an older man with money she finds “physically unappealing…tall and ungainly pale and middle aged” and then engage in a torrid sexual affair with a younger man she does love. And perhaps, like Phyllis in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, she just might be a multiple murderer.

So there is plenty here to get the noir pot boiling. But then Cain does something only a master could do: he decides to have Joan tell us her story from the first-person point of view. Aspiring noir writers have been trying to write classic noir for decades, often coming up with parody instead, but Cain creates the real thing here.

Joan’s narrative comes off as an elaborate plea to the jury of public opinion. Indeed, she says she has decided to tape record her story to “clear my name of the slanders against me, in connection to the job and the marriage it led to and to all that came after --- always the same charge…of being a femme fetale who knew ways of killing her husband so slick they couldn’t be proved. Unfortunately, they can’t be disproved either…”  

Cain has created here a deeply unsettling, ultimately subversive story. Can Joan be believed? Is she just a gold-digger with the sick old man she targets and marries? Is she a whore? Is she a slick killer? Or is she just a victim of circumstances who really just loves her son and does everything for him? We don’t know for sure, but we cannot help but keep turning the pages and following Joanie down.

But then Cain, in his final gift to us, provides a twist so powerful it will leave you stunned. He delivers here, with Ardai’s considerable help and expertise, a noir masterpiece. For in true noir, nobody escapes their fate, even the innocent, no matter how hard they try. There is no escape. And often what we think is our salvation and the distant sound of angels singing is really just the gates of hell slamming forever closed behind us.

It is sad to think this book was lost for 35 years, and almost forever, if not for a publishing house called Hard Case Crime and an exceptionally talented editor named Charles Ardai. Now it will be available forever to new generations of Cain fans. THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS is the book of 2012. And Hollywood should take note: this is going to be a great film noir movie someday.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on September 21, 2012

The Cocktail Waitress
by James M. Cain