The indicia page of The Cocktail Waitress — James M. Cain’s long-lost, never-before-published, final composition — bears the code HCC-109, indicating that this novel is approximately the seventy-fifth offering from Hard Case Crime (their numbering scheme is discontinuous).
For the uninitiated, Hard Case Crime, founded in 2004, is a stellar line of pulp fiction, new and old, masterminded by publisher Charles Ardai. This ongoing celebration of the low-rent, lowbrow genres of crime, suspense, thrillers, and general all-round dangerous down-and-dirty realism has to rank as one of the greatest accomplishments of twenty-first-century publishing. When the line seemed in peril of extinction after losing its original distributor, many fans took the blow like a death in the family — or a hard punch to a private eye’s breadbasket.
But since securing a reliable new channel for its seamy wares, Hard Case Crime has gone on to new heights, including hardcover and trade-paperback releases. (Its original format was strictly mass-market, as befitting the inspirational memories of Gold Medal paperback originals.) Surely the Cain book — the outcome of some arduous archaeological sleuthing and delicate editorial finessing, as described by Ardai in an informative afterword — represents a new high-water mark for the firm.
In his ailing eighties during the year 1975, Cain — the famed author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, among many others — devoted his waning energies to the story of widowed Joan Medford. Abused by her lush of a husband, who is unmournedly dead in a drunken car crash by the book’s opening page, housewife Joan faces the tasks of supporting herself and reclaiming her beloved son from the avaricious grip of her scornful sister-in-law. When fate brings her into the cocktail lounge of the Garden of Roses bar — a name meant to evoke “life is no bed of roses,” I’m sure — she dons the establishment’s trademark hot pants, unbuttons her blouse a little deeper, and gets to work.
Two patrons elicit her special attentions: handsome young hellion Tom Barclay and vitiated older rich businessman Earl K. White III. As any seasoned reader of Cain will soon anticipate, such a love triangle is a combustible mix.
But contrary to Cain’s Golden Age novels of deceit and murder, the fuse lit here is slow and sputtering, triggering an explosion only around page 200 onward. There is no circle-of-hell, playthings of the Fates, damned by passion ambiance to the earlier chapters. Instead, we get a muted, albeit fascinating study of female ambition for self-preservation’s sake, mediated by society’s prejudices and parameters. In other words, we are more in Cain’s other great mode of societal and domestic tension, as exemplified in his classic Mildred Pierce.
As Joan narrates her own story, wherein she parlays luscious gams and a good-girl ethic into marriage to millionaire White, we share her anxieties and desires for security, amid a setting as barbed with penalties and pitfalls as any Hunger Games. The cops are suspicious about the circumstances of her first husband’s death. Bianca, her boss at the Garden, is concerned only with serving/fleecing the customers. Her “best friend” Liz wants Joan to hook on the side. And then, of course, there’s sister-in-law Ethel, who desires little Tad for her own. Barbara Stanwyck, of course, would have mowed all these opponents down, in a different kind of Cain book, till she self-immolated.
But what the reader gradually realizes is that Cain has instead eerily prefigured the biography of Anna Nicole Smith instead, a woman of limited capacities and large desires who attains her dreams only to find them hellish. As Joan herself puts it, “And then at last I began to realize how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true.” And then of course there’s an alternate reading, suggested by editor Ardai, that Joan’s first-person narration is unreliable and she truly had a hand in three murders. If so, her ultimate comeuppance, limned on the last page, is well deserved.
In his senior years, Cain continued to write a prose that was lean and very readable, if not quite as hypnotically gripping as of yore, and his plotting skills hold up well, too. But there is no denying that this book exhibits certain anachronistic tics and attitudes. Despite some up-to-date cultural talismans — hot pants, etc. — there is no real sense of the 1970s present. The story takes place in an Eternal Land of Noir, where all the lighting and camera angles are by Fritz Lang and sex equals death. Lending an additional estrangement, the speech patterns Cain attributes to his characters are highly idiosyncratic, alternately formal and inverted. Joan asks White, “You think I might have taken that way?” He replies, “If invited in, you might have.” Later, explaining how she occupied her time away from White, she says, “Tried to forget you was all.” Readers of late-period Robert Heinlein (The Number of the Beast) will detect a similar hardening of literary arteries.
But through those narrowed veins, hot blood could still flow. Every now and then Cain cuts loose with a vivid metaphor. “[Tom Barclay had] a presence to him, a scent almost, that took something loose inside a woman and coiled it up tight.” And then there’s one seemingly throwaway incident, when a little girl steals son Tad’s new bike and evokes tears from Tad and his pal. What a brilliant symbol for the whole book, dashed off with a master’s touch!
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.