The Cocktail Waitress
James M Cain
James M Cain is, quite rightly, regarded as one of the top three hardboiled crime writers in American fiction, the other two being Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Unlike his colleagues however, Cain is only remembered for a short selection of the many works he produced. Specifically, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. All are excellent pieces (and each were all made into very satisfying film adaptions), but few other works of Cain’s are remembered, much less held in the same air of reverence as the other three. It makes for a contrast with Chandler and Hammett, whose complete works can be picked up at any bookshop with a half-decent crime section. Although admittedly neither of them had a particularly vast novel output (Chandler with seven and Hammett on five), the numbers of short stories they produced, most of which are still in print today, makes up for this.
Maybe it’s because Cain, unlike Hammett and Chandler, didn’t ever rely on one character for multiple books, and he strayed away from the classic detective-thriller style which they went for. Cain’s books are much darker and focus on baser instincts such as lust, greed and desire. It was perhaps that which hindered, and which even now still hinders, him. Publishers now who keep works by the old authors in print seem to favour books which belong to a series (look at the way Penguin make the point of numbering all of Chandler’s books, or Orion doing the same with Spillane’s Mike Hammer series). It puts Cain at a disadvantage. Fortunately, the above ‘big three’ are still in publication (along with another early novel, Serenade , which I was pleased to pick up during a recent trip to London). Picking any of his later works up seems to be, at best, luck of the draw.
Much respect is therefore due to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime. A self-professed lover of Cain (one who, as he himself states, went to great lengths to track down all of Cain’s books which are now difficult to get hold of), he managed to track down a long-lost manuscript of Cain’s final work. An unpublished thriller written by Cain during the final years of his life before his death in 1977. Thirty-five years later, Hard Case Crime finally made The Cocktail Waitress available.
I should point out at this stage that my feelings towards posthumous novels are mixed. Taking the unpublished work of a deceased author and finishing it without their involvement seems to be disrespectful, even if the intentions are honourable. They come across as if the publisher or ghost author is saying that the book doesn’t need the author, and that it can be completed quite adequately without them. This seems to undermine the importance of the author – the personal touches, the voice, not to mention any additional plot points that may not have found their way into a notebook. A ghost author can make a posthumous work feel more like a homage to the deceased and their previous works rather than as the stand-alone work it should be (Poodle Springs, anybody?)
The (fortunate) difference here, however, is that Cain finished The Cocktail Waitress before he died. In fact, he finished multiple drafts. This means that the story is, more or less, as complete and true to the author’s intention as any posthumous novel could hope to be. Whilst Charles Ardai states in his afterword that he did have to pick and choose certain chapters/sections to include in the finial manuscript, this is no more or no less than the suggestions that any reasonable editor would make in other circumstances. As such, I’ll let my objections slide.
In these cases, I suppose the question to be asked is whether or not the author would have been happy with the draft that makes its way out. Unfortunately, the fact that the author is dead makes it difficult to assess that. Instead, we should ask whether or not the book which makes its way out is faithful to the author and that it reads, sounds, and feels like something that the author would have put out had death not taken them away. In that sense, The Cocktail Waitress is a success.
Much like Mildred Pierce, The Cocktail Waitress tells the story of a woman trying to make her way to the top after escaping a loveless marriage, who is trying to provide the best for her child whilst also being brought down by those closest to her. But The Cocktail Waitress isn’t to be mistaken for a cheap re-telling of Mildred Pierce. Even though such a comparison is perhaps justified from an initial summary, there are a number of differences which sets The Cocktail Waitress apart. Firstly, it is told through the eyes of the central character herself, as opposed to the third-person narrative of Mildred Pierce. Secondly, there is more of a tragic feeling about the character. Here, Joan Medford is a twenty-one year old widow with a husband killed under circumstances which the police consider to be rather suspect, with a son being looked after by a controlling sister-in-law, no friends or family to care for her, and no money aside from what she can make washing cars for neighbours. A sole friendly guide helps get her a job as a (hold onto your fedoras) cocktail waitress, where she meets a selection of men with differing combinations to money, looks and problems. Needless to say, the further she gets up on the ladder of her ambitions, the more forces around her (whether of her own making or otherwise) try to drag her down.
Keeping with Cain’s early works, much of the story is built around lust. From the details of her work ‘uniform’ (with ample descriptions of her won legs and bust given), to her visit to a nightclub-come-brothel with a bar regular, and to a husband’s feeble attempts at celibacy, sex is the overriding driving force of all the men in Medford’s life. Some she enjoys, some she resists. What makes the story interesting (rather than an attempt at mere titillation) is the fact it is being told from the view of the woman (who may or may not deserve the title of femme fatale) involved rather than the man’s. Rather than being a leering spectator, the psychology of what is going on it being delved into more. Rather than desiring someone else, the central character is the object of desire. It adds a different perspective on the relationship between the characters in a novel of this kind. Imagine The Postman Always Rings Twice being written from Cara’s perspective, and you get the kind of idea of what you might be getting.
On the face of it, the story is a tale of a woman’s attempt to make something or her life from nothing. As is Cain’s custom, the story moves at a quick pace and nothing stays still in the character’s world for long. Without giving away too much here, there are enough deaths and police investigations going on to keep any fan of noir and Cain’s previous works interested. But the story goes beyond that and gives us a deeper look at lust and sex, and how these can control and influence our very lives.
It’s not the sort of book which is going to win literary prizes. If it had been published at the same time of Cains earlier works, it no doubt would have earned him the same kind of scorn and contempt from reviewers that had been afforded to him with his other books. But it is a true James M Cain story, and a fine addition to his catalogue. Hard Case Crime should take a bow for stepping in and giving us this chance to see this sinful, decadent world from Cain’s glorious pen one last time.