The Cocktail Waitress

The Cocktail Waitress

4.5 9
by James M. Cain

View All Available Formats & Editions

Following her husband's death in a suspicious car accident, beautiful young widow Joan Medford is forced to take a job serving drinks in a cocktail lounge to make ends meet and to have a chance of regaining custody of her young son. At the job she encounters two men who take an interest in her, a handsome young schemer who makes her blood race and a wealthy but

…  See more details below


Following her husband's death in a suspicious car accident, beautiful young widow Joan Medford is forced to take a job serving drinks in a cocktail lounge to make ends meet and to have a chance of regaining custody of her young son. At the job she encounters two men who take an interest in her, a handsome young schemer who makes her blood race and a wealthy but unwell older man who rewards her for her attentions with a $50,000 tip and an unconventional offer of marriage...

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is vintage Cain ... Let's go get that book, baby. Let's read it. Let's get stinko." – The Washington Post

"entertaining and cleverly plotted" – Editors' Choice, New York Times

"Fittingly for the endpoint of a long and meaningful career, Cain saves his best twist for the very last page of his very last book, a haymaker from the blind side, so carefully finessed and camouflaged through the book as to bring a tear to a glass eye — another writer’s jealous acknowledgment. It is a moment that draws Joan’s world and Cain’s view of desire and consequence into tight focus. One thinks of the author well into his ninth decade, setting down those final passages with a hidden smile and a writer’s certain knowledge that they won’t see this coming. He was right." – New York Times

“I think James M. Cain is one novelist who has something to teach just about any writer, and delight just about any reader. The Postman Always Rings Twice was a work of genius. So it's good news that The Cocktail Waitress, Cain's last novel has finally been published.” – Anne Rice

“Swift and absorbing…pulses with more authentic primal energy than the work of any number of Cain imitators from the 1930s to the present.” – Wall Street Journal

"The Cocktail Waitress 
was found among his papers after a decade-long search and has never been published…until now. After burying her abusive husband on page 1 of the book, Joan takes a job waitressing to make ends meet, and winds up meeting two new men: a wealthy but repulsive older man and a handsome young schemer who makes her blood boil. Can you have any doubt that things will end badly for one or both of them? No, that’s not a spoiler – it’s a simple statement of fact when you’re talking about a Cain femme fatale, the deadliest species there is." – Huffington Post

"The Cocktail Waitress is a not-to-be missed crime thriller for all Cain fans ... A rare, hardboiled blast from the past." – Shelf Awareness

"It’s easy to fall for a previously unpublished work by Cain, whose oeuvre includes The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity(1943). Fortunately, The Cocktail Waitress—which the author sought to complete before perishing in 1977—serves up ample delights (and a few familiar themes). It tells of Joan Medford, a captivating young mother whose abusive hubby has died under odd circumstances, and who then takes a job waiting tables in a dodgy cocktail lounge. There she meets a loaded elderly gent with a bum ticker, Earl K. White III, as well as the grabby, calculating Tom Barclay. She weds White out of pragmatism, rather than passion; but tensions in the continuing relationships between these three players guarantee trouble. We witness the unfolding drama through Joan’s eyes, while wondering what she’s withholding." – Kirkus

"the most important literary event of 2012 ... This book marks the greatest achievement of Hard Case Crime in its short existence ... ranks right up there with anything the author ever wrote in his prime. And in saying that, it is better than a lot of what gets published today ... Cain creates a timeless, claustrophobic nightmare that will rock you long after you put it down ... a noir masterpiece ... THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS is the book of 2012. And Hollywood should take note: this is going to be a great film noir movie someday." – Book Reporter

“This novel will capture you quickly.” “It’s spicy and riveting.” “This is the kind of book that makes people want to read Hard Case Crime. It’s perfect as an introduction to crime novels or as a refreshing new offering from an old favorite.” “You’re definitely going to want to pick up a copy.” – DNM Magazine

"The Cocktail Waitress is another gem for Cain fans - and all lovers of classic noir." – Noir Journal

Books of the year in the Evening Standard (London): "The posthumous publication of James M Cain's The Cocktail Waitress (Hard Case Crime, £16.99) showed the third great noir master – after Hammett and Chandler – as acute on febrile sexuality and dark human urges at the end of his life as he was in Double Indemnity.

“The work is spellbinding and compelling, in the end challenging one’s values, beliefs, and prejudices.” – San Francisco Book Review

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!

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo

Publishers Weekly
Reviewed by Meghan Abbott. More than halfway through American noir master James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, just before its house-of-cards plot collapses under its own weight (then, in its final paragraphs, springs to life once more), the narrator tells us, “I began to realize how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true.” Cain could have just as easily said those words himself. In fact, he did. “I write of the wish that comes true,” he once wrote, “for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination.” In his novels, you find neither the poetry of Raymond Chandler nor the lacerating intelligence of Dashiell Hammett, but Cain makes up for both in his keen understanding of the human heart, its darkest chambers. His best novels leave you feeling jolted and bruised. The Cocktail Waitress was Cain’s bête noire, a tale with which he wrestled during his final years. The white whale of noir scholars since the author’s death in 1977, this novel was recovered after a nine-year hunt by Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai, who assembled this published version from multiple versions, the same scenes rendered multiple times, none of them dated. The plot concerns a beautiful widow under suspicion by the police, a hustling young man, a sickly millionaire—all the elements of a classic Cain “love rack”—seamy tales of feverish and restless strivers caught in traps of their own making (The Postman Always Rings Twice; Double Indemnity). And like so many of his novels, it’s a confessional tale, told from the viewpoint of the widow herself, forced by economic necessity to wait tables and compelled by a mix of ambition, maternal longing, and pique to take a series of perilous risks to hit the big gold dream. What’s missing, however, is Cain’s trademark propulsive pace. The novel reads in fits and starts, perhaps the inevitable result of its bumpy lineage. Cain seems frequently bewildered by his female narrator, by how to articulate her physical desire, by how a woman might even think about her body—a potentially fatal flaw in a story about the dangerous places desire will take you. Likewise, the two male corners of the love triangle feel vague, inconsistent, and broad all at once, and the story repeatedly stutters to a halt before its final surge. Yet The Cocktail Waitress still offers much of the addictive weirdness of vintage Cain: delirious coincidences, the hidden kinks of the middle class, and a prime example of what has always been one of Cain’s greatest talents: the turn-of-the-screw moment when we realize just how trapped our narrator has become. The concluding pages offer one of the niftiest plot twists you ever saw coming—and because you are waiting for it, it hits you twice as hard. This is the essence of Cain. As with all his saps and patsies snared by their own greed and risk taking, we know the minute we meet them they are doomed. And they know it, too, but can’t stop themselves anyway. They don’t want to. (Sept.) Megan Abbott is the Edgar-winning author of six novels, including The End of Everything and her latest, Dare Me(Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur, July).
Library Journal
Cain began this novel in 1975 at age 83. Following his death two years later, the manuscript was stashed away and forgotten until it was brought to the attention of Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai, who hunted it down. The book sports elements familiar to Cain's classic works, notably an older man with a young, hottie wife. The first-person narrative follows 21-year-old Joan Medford, whose drunken bastard husband crashes into a wall, leaving her and their toddler son destitute. Joan lands a job slinging booze in a local lounge where her beautiful face and centerfold goodies draw the attention of moneybags businessman Earl K. White, who woos and marries her. Joan's babelicious bod proves too much for Earl's angina, and after she plants hubby number two—this time leaving her filthy rich—the cops cry murder. VERDICT Though reminiscent of Cain's early work, this story offers a new twist regarding his seductive protagonist. Writing from the perspective of a 21-year-old woman isn't the most natural thing for an octogenarian gent, but Cain pulls it off adequately. Overall, the characters are fully fleshed out, the dialog flows, and Cain's signature sexual tension crackles on every page. A tasty cocktail, indeed.—Mike Rogers, Library Journal

Read More

Product Details

Publication date:
Hard Case Crime
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The Cocktail Waitress 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
gloriafeit More than 1 year ago
This was the last book written, at age 83, by James M. Cain, who died in 1977, the man who penned such classic, unforgettable novels as Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and one never before published. And kudos to Hard Case Crime for doing so now, nearly four decades later, for it is a fitting conclusion to the man’s oeuvre. Along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he helped create the noir genre, with this a typical example. The first-person narrator, Joan Medford, twenty-one years old, is burying her husband on page one of the book. The abusive drunk had crashed into a culvert headwall one night at 70 miles an hour, leaving her with a small boy to raise, alone and penniless. [In those days, there were few resources for a teenage girl who found herself pregnant, and many ‘shotgun weddings’ were the result, of which this had been one.] His family had never liked her, and her husband’s sister, herself unable to have children, covets Tad, Joan’s adorable three-year-old boy, and readily agrees to care for him while Joan attempts to get a job to keep a roof over their heads, and immediately gets one working as a cocktail waitress in a nearby restaurant/tavern/”ginmill” in Hyattsville, Maryland [a better scenario than mowing lawns, her next choice.] One is quickly orientated to the time frame when a tonic on the rocks ordered by her first customer costs 85 cents. And initially the writing seems dated as well, but once the reader gets into rhythm of the book, its pleasure derives from much more than nostalgia. That new customer, Earl K. White III, is just one of two men Joan meets her first day on the job. He is an older man, a wealthy widower, kind and generous though nearly repulsive to her. The second is a hunky young man who has dreams but no resources. They are both immediately enamored of her, and the descriptions of her seductive appearance in her “uniform” which arouses such reactions are made dramatically, and graphically, clear in the wonderful, and wonderfully evocative, cover art. She is confronted by a choice between love/lust or a chance at a comfortable, respectable life for her and her adored son. There is a hint of sinister events to come, with a cop who is not satisfied with a verdict of accidental death and harbors suspicions of murderous intent. The novel has an ending straight out of the arsenal of this author of Double Indemnity, which the reader won’t see coming. The book is hard to put down, and is recommended.
JohnGP More than 1 year ago
I read and loved this book, as I loved all by this author. I'm trying to pin down the time setting. I read somewhere that it was the early 60's. It can't be before 1964, as the main character, Joan, mentions Kennedy Airport. That airport was called Idlewilde previously, and was renamed Kennedy Aiirport after President Kennedy's assassination at the end of 1963. Television is mentioned, also. So it can't be the earlier time period of most of Cain's other novels. Would like to knnow for sure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pretty good. This is one of the noir novels - more suspense than mystery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Will not disappoint a must read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Looking at the cover I noticed that the woman looked alot like Rita Hayworth which swayed me toward the era which the book's time frame was which helped set the mood for the story.I love watching old movies and l loved reading this book.Reading different phrases that were used back then was enjoyable for me.It's rare for me to have a"JAW DROPPING MOMENT"I did not see that one coming at all.You will know exactally what l'm talking about when it happens.One more thing l really admired about Joan is that she didn't take any crap off these(WISE GUYS) (:
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NewtLove More than 1 year ago
James M. Cain, who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, was a master craftsman, and a whiz at plotting. I'm only part way through The Cocktail Waitress, but am enthralled with Joan, the main character, and the 1930s world she inhabits in a Maryland subburb of Washington DC. The prose is as comfortable as a favorite house slipper, but the "reveals" in the plot are dazzling. This brand new book from a long-dead writer is a winner!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm about halfway through and I find this book light, quick reading. This author wrote Double Indemnity, Postman RingsTwice , and this novel follows that vein. It may change by the end but so far I like it.