Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain

The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain was edited by Charles Ardai from Cain’s last manuscript. Its publication is something of a literary event. Cain was part of that hard-boiled group of the 30s and 40s who helped define pulp fiction. Cain has been described as one of the fundamental creators of “noir fiction” (“noir” means black in French) and the term noir fiction is a variant of “film noir” so named because French critics so defined post-war films as “film noir” because of their dark, gritty realism. Cain’s novels have also been described as roman noir or “dark novel.” What these convoluted facts really means is that James M. Cain wrote realistic dramas about people down on their luck His books are populated with grifters and con-men, hookers and corrupt businessmen. Cain’s famous novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934. He published over twenty books before his death in 1977. In The Cocktail Waitress down-on-her-luck Joan Medford is broke and in need of a job after the death of her abusive alcoholic husband. The cops suspect Joan had something to do with her husband’s death but can’t prove it. She takes a job as a cocktail waitress at a place called The Garden of Roses. She attracts immediate attention with her revealing outfits and sexy figure. She is soon involved with two men – a millionaire named Earl K. White and a handsome man named Tom Barclay. Told in the first person from Joan’s point of view, the novel explores the very real world of despair and of dreams for something better. Joan knows that Mr. White can offer her the financial security she craves but she finds him sexually repulsive. Tom Barclay, himself a bit of a dreamer, offers her both romance and sexual fulfillment. In the midst of this she wants her toddler son back who is staying with relatives. Cain handles his twisting plot skillfully although at times it almost gets away from him. Beneath this layer of despair is the not too subtle hint that Joan did have something to do with her abusive husband’s death. Naturally, other characters perish and Joan becomes a suspect. The Cocktail Waitress is typical Cain all the way, with an ending that left me quite stunned. He sets it up and then deftly slips it onto the last page. Will Joan survive her turmoil’s? Is she guilty or innocent, and does it matter? At what price is happiness sold? This is James M. Cain territory and Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime have given us all a gift with this final novel from a great American author.

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