Classics in September — The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain — James Mallahan Cain was born in Maryland in 1892. After returning from WWI, where he wrote for an army magazine, he continued working as a journalist before focusing on novels and screenplays. His first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934 to popular acclaim and notoriety. The novel’s mix of sexuality and violence was startling in its time, and set a template for other classic Cain novels including Mildred Pierce (1941) and Double Indemnity (1943). The same qualities lent the books to successful film adaptations, with the screenplay for Double Indemnity being co-written by Raymond Chandler.
Cain’s early, most successful novels feature femmes fatales, and arguably no-one has written such characters better. An artistic and literary archetype, the femme fatale is a mysterious and seductive woman, using her beauty and allure to ensnare doomed men. Think of Cora from The Postman Always Rings Twice, or Phyllis Nirdlinger seducing insurance salesman Walter Huff into killing her husband in Double Indemnity. This picture of women goes all the way back to classical and biblical times – and probably beyond – but for a more modern view written from the female perspective try the superb noir work of Megan Abbott. However, fans of the early noir style of James M Cain, will surely find The Cocktail Waitress a treat as it appears now, 35 years after the author’s passing.
Discovered and edited by Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime, The Cocktail Waitress is told in the voice of Joan Medford, her story taped in the hope that she can clear her name of slander spread by her sister-in-law, Ethel. We meet Joan at the funeral of her husband Ron. Everyone can agree that Ron was a drunkard and beat Joan and their son Tad, resentful as he was of being trapped in a marriage at a young age. What’s not clear is how he died. Joan’s version is that he perished in a car crash, driving drunk late at night, and the police can’t prove otherwise. However, that doesn’t stop them holding their suspicions.
Meanwhile, Joan is destitute and takes work in a cocktail bar, leaving Ethel look after Tad until she finds her feet. Joan knows she won’t get him back without a fight until she has something more solid and respectable sorted. The attentions of Earl K White, elderly businessman and millionaire, offer a way out even though she finds his touch repulsive. He suffers from angina, however an experimental treatment he uses means that if they wed he would indeed be capable of consummating the marriage. The thought sickens Joan. So, she must choose between sleeping with Earl and getting Tad back, or having Tom Barclay, the good looking young man after whom she lusts. Trouble is, Barclay can’t proivde the security she needs to get Tad back from Ethel.
Maybe there is a way that Joan can have it all: White’s money, Barclay’s love, and Tad at home. You can see where this is going…
The Femme Fatale, the love triangle, the desperation – it’s all classic Cain and, one senses, as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. After all, it’s what his solid gold reputation is made of. I was particularly impressed with how Joan may or may not be an unreliable narrator. All of her recollections are plausible and yet I couldn’t help wondering if she was fooling me, and kidding herself as well. Ultimately, Cain leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Joan Medford is a femme fatale, or a plucky survivor doing her best against desperately bad luck.
This is a great read but the book does feel slightly padded here and there. A honeymoon in England and the search for the felon breaking his bond seem slightly unnecessary. Nevertheless, none of that stopped me enjoying this book hugely, and it seems Hard Case Crime has discovered another winner from the vaults to go alongside The Comedy is Finished, The Consummata, and the many other throwback crime titles released in recent years.
Hard Case Crime/Titan Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars