When we meet Joan Medford at the beginning of The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain, it is at the funeral of her husband, Ron. Readers familiar with Cain’s noir fiction, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), will suspect Joan is another of Cain’s legendary femme fatales, but when Joan gets a job as a cocktail waitress the focus shifts to her choice between two prospective suitors. Earl K. White is a rich, elderly man, who cares deeply for Joan, but whose touch repulses her. Tom Barclay, on the other hand, is a young rascal with wandering hands, grand schemes, and a dashing smile. Also, Joan is devoted to her son, Tad, and as she works towards self-sufficiency – with the help of Earl’s generous tips – it is all to reclaim him from his aunt, Ethel, where he is staying.
After a promising start and introduction to the main characters though, The Cocktail Waitress somewhat loses its way. According to Charles Ardai’s fascinating afterword, Ardai tracked down multiple manuscripts of The Cocktail Waitress and prepared the book for publishing, but the absence of a definitive manuscript may indicate that Cain had either shelved the project, or was still in the process of ironing out lingering dissatisfactions with the work – an opinion borne out by the meandering plot of The Cocktail Waitress. Ardai claims Cain is one of the ‘big three’ giants of hardboiled fiction (alongside Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett). Whether or not this is true, readers will be familiar with Cain as a master storyteller, an author capable of holding the reader’s attention in a vice-like grip, but although the prose in The Cocktail Waitress is vivid, there is scant sense of direction in the plot. For example, a bizarre, convoluted episode involving a rush to the airport to reclaim some lost bail money seems ill-judged. Despite wonderful editing by Ardai, the novel as a whole has a disjointed feel, like a disparate collection of elements that Cain had not finished tinkering with at the time of his death.
However, my complaints about The Cocktail Waitress are perhaps the result of unduly high expectations. Readers approaching it with the hope of discovering a lost Cain classic might be disappointed, but it is nevertheless a highly entertaining read. The prose bears Cain’s masterful touch. It is colourful, fluent, and readable. Also, Cain does a deft job of sketching the characters. Joan, naturally, is the most fully realized character, and the first-person viewpoint allows for sympathy and understanding of her motives.
Readers new to Cain, or noir fiction in general, would do well to start with one of his more well-known works, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, but those readers already familiar with his works will relish the chance to enjoy a new novel by Cain, thanks to the efforts of Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime. In addition, this Hard Case Crime edition is well produced, and the picture on the dust jacket is suitably reminiscent of the scandalous covers of the pulp classics of the genre.
The Cocktail Waitress is published by Hard Case Crime.