|THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS
James M. Cain
Hard Case Crime (hardcasecrime.com)
Back in September 2004, Hard Case Crime – then an imprint of American publisher Dorchester – launched with Lawrence Block’s Grifter’s Game. The idea behind the line, as evidenced by the lurid, pulpy (yet beautiful) covers, was to reproduce the feel of those early hard-boiled novels of the ‘40s and ‘50s, by publishing works both newly-written and long out of print. The imprint moved from Dorchester to the UK-based Titan Books, re-launching on the line’s seventh anniversary, ethos intact despite the change of format, and loss of uniformity. Their latest book, number HCC-109 in the series, is the lost final novel of James M. Cain, a man credited as one of the founders of the hard-boiled genre.
Joan Medford is twenty-one years old and recently-widowed. So recently, in fact, that when we first meet her, she is standing at her husband’s graveside attending his funeral. Drunk and abusive, he ploughed his car into a culvert at seventy miles per hour when Joan kicked him out of the house. Now Joan is penniless – her utilities have been cut off, and it is only a matter of time before she loses her house – and under suspicion of murdering her husband. To top it all off, the woman who suspects her most – her husband’s sister – is caring for Joan’s three-year-old son, and has designs to make the arrangement more permanent. When a policeman suggests she speak to the owner of a local restaurant, Joan finds herself working as a scantily-clad cocktail waitress, and it is in this role that she meets the wealthy Earl K. White III. In an attempt to ensure her own security, and the future of her child, Joan ingratiates herself with the older man, but soon finds matters complicated by the arrival on the scene of a much younger man with designs of his own.
At first glance, it’s a classic noirish setup, a love triangle with wealth at one corner, jealousy at another and that staple of hard-boiled fiction – the femme fatale – at the third. But here Cain introduces a clever twist that casts a new light on an old trope: the story is told in the form of a recording made by Joan Medford designed to prove her innocence in the death of her husband, and in the events that unfold during the course of the novel. With this untrustworthy narrator as our guide, it is left to the reader to decide for themselves what to believe, and how innocent Mrs Medford actually is.
In The Cocktail Waitress, Cain has produced a finely-crafted story where everything is important, and not a single word is wasted. Obviously a disciple of Chekhov’s gun, Cain plays the long game, introducing important facts early in the story that will be of consequence later: the medical condition, the drug and the bail-skipper subplot that, while seemingly unrelated to the main story, ultimately leads to life-threatening complications for Joan Medford.
Cain’s foundation here is the characters that inhabit his story; a bunch of misfits and rogues, dirty old men and beautiful young women willing to take advantage. What makes them realistic, keeps the reader engaged, is Cain’s ear for language. Sharp and full of wit, the dialogue drives the story as much as, if not more than, the narrative. The relationship between these characters is the crux of the story, and detailing their verbal interactions – how they speak to each other, what they say – is the most effective way of showing how these relationships evolve over the course of the novel.
As you might expect from the title, and the glorious Michael Koelsch cover painting, The Cocktail Waitress can be somewhat risqué. Fairly tame by modern standards, Cain’s contemporary audience would likely have viewed it in a much different light. Sex plays a pivotal role in the plot, but Cain never dwells, never offers more detail than the brief sketch that is required to drive the story forward, and ensure the reader is in no doubt when they reach the book’s conclusion. And what a conclusion! The untrustworthy narrator leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination: how much involvement did she have in the death of her husband? How much involvement did she have in the events that followed? Is she as innocent as she claims, or is there some medium ground between the angel she portrays and the devil we might imagine? One thing is never in doubt though: that final paragraph is a gut-wrenching, shocking twist of the knife that leaves its victim – the narrator herself – completely in the dark.
I’m relatively new to Cain’s work, having previously only read The Postman Always Rings Twice, so I’ll leave comparisons between this novel and his previous novels to people more qualified than I. With that in mind, I can’t recommend The Cocktail Waitress highly enough. It’s an old-fashioned noir tale told from a fresh perspective that challenges both the author and the long-time reader of the genre. Cain’s final novel deserves an audience, and all credit to series editor Charles Ardai who worked so hard to ensure that it saw the light of day in its current coherent incarnation (the book contains an excellent essay by Ardai on the process that brought the novel from discovery to publication). It’s a novel worthy of the Hard Case Crime yellow ribbon, and a beautiful example of a wonderful, though oft-maligned, genre.