Book Review: James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress
Death is one of the few things that can keep a good author down. But not James M. Cain. His pulp novel The Cocktail Waitress arrives this month, 35 years after his passing. Unlike other mediocre posthumous literary works though, Cain’s novel is actually a gripping read. That’s because the book’s editor, Charles Adai, spent nearly a decade tracking down the multiple Cain manuscripts and exhaustive notes he used to assemble The Cocktail Waitress.
Cain’s book follows Joan Medford, a beautiful young widow, whose husband dies under dubious circumstances. Desperate to pay the bills after his death, Joan takes on work a waitress in a cocktail lounge, where she meets two new men: a whimsical, handsome young man she falls for and a prosperous older one that she decides to marry. The remainder of novel focuses on the subsequent drama that comes from Joan’s conflicting loyalties for the two suitors.
Adai, founder of the Hard Case Crime label for Titan Books, employs shrewd judgment when reconstructing Cain’s narrative. As he discusses in his engaging and informative afterword, Adai merges what he deems to be all the best character arcs and scenes from Cain’s original materials to complete the novel. The result is a compelling final Cain mystery involving his familiar topics of sex, drugs, and murder.
Despite the obvious attention-grabbing nature of these sordid themes, the most persuasive aspect about Cain’s noir crime novel is its unique voice. Not only is The Cocktail Waitress told from a woman’s first-person perspective, an extreme rarity in itself for the genre, but the central character is actually the story’s femme fatale. Usually the femme fatale is just an object of desire that gets our hardboiled protagonist into trouble. She doesn’t normally speak to us and she certainly isn’t aware of that term.
What makes Cain’s main character, Joan Medford, astonishingly intricate is that she openly acknowledges accusations of being a femme fatale and rebuffs them. Her tale is narrated as if she was tape recording her side of the events for posterity. In her testimony, she’s honest about the serious evidence implicating her in murder and her inability to completely exonerate herself. So she does the best that she can with her word, “All I know to do is tell it and tell it all, including some things no woman would willingly tell. I don’t look forward to it, but if that’s how it has to be, it’s how it has to be.”
Although Cain never gives you a reason to doubt the validity of Joan’s account, Adai brings up a good point in his afterword about her reliability as a narrator. Because hers is the only perspective that you read, there’s a very good chance that she’s either lying or not telling the whole truth about everything that happened. Whether she is or not, is something that you’ll ponder long after you finish the book.
Cain’s final work enjoyable read, however it’s not entirely without shortcomings. There are a few moments when Joan is speaking that it’s obvious that a man is writing her words. One instance occurs when she’s getting dressed and describing what she looks like naked to the reader, something a true female narrator wouldn’t likely do. Another weak point is the novel’s ending, something Adai admits Cain was dissatisfied with and trying to rework when he died. The resolution feels predictable and a touch anticlimactic. But at least Stephen King’s praise on the jacket is accurate this time though, “A true rarity: a reader’s novel that’s also a literary event.” Way to go Uncle Stevie!
The Cocktail Waitress is available now in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
- IFFBoston Review: ‘Sightseers’
- Book Review: ‘Plague Nation’
- Book Review: The Complete David Bowie
- Book Review: James P. Blaylock’s The Aylesford Skull
- Book Review: ‘Dark Shadows: The Visual Companion’
- Soderbergh’s ‘Side Effects’ is Stylish Yet Predictable
- Book Review: Silhouettes from Popular Culture by Olly Moss
- Book Review: The James Bond Omnibus 004
- Flight Review: A Solid Return to Live Action for Zemeckis
- You’ll Need a Bigger Coffee Table for Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard