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The Cocktail Waitress (Hard Case Crime) Hardcover – September 18, 2012
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"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"It’s easy to fall for a previously unpublished work by Cain, whose oeuvre includes The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity(1943).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
About the Author
A one-time editor at The New Yorker and a lifelong journalist, James Mallahan Cain achieved worldwide overnight fame when he published his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, in 1934. The classics Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce followed in 1936 and 1941, reinforcing Cain's reputation as the great chronicler of crimes of passion, typically set against a working-class backdrop during the Great Depression. His books have inspired a number of classic movies, including Billy Wilder's Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Double Indemnity, which was chosen by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest movies of all time.
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Cain's novel is largely set in Hyattsville and other Washington D.C. suburbia during the 1950s. The use of the drug Thalidomide during this time, which resulted in many severe birth defects, forms an important backdrop to the book. The book's primary character, a highly sexual femme fatale in her early 20's, Joan White, narrates the story. The daughter of a prosperous Pittsburgh family, Joan ran off to Washington D.C. when she rejected a suitor urged by her parents. She becomes pregnant by and marries an abusive young man, Ron who dies under the influence in a single-car accident under suspicious circumstances. Her sister-in-law takes custody of the couple's young child. In order to make ends meet, Joan takes a position as a cocktail waitress in a bar called Garden of Roses, where the services of the waitresses sometimes are for sale.
Joan tells the history of her relationship with two men. One of the patrons of the Garden of Roses is Earl White, a wealthy and elderly widower with a severe heart condition. Joan's physical and emotional response to Earl borders on repulsion; but she marries him to secure a future for her son and, of course, for money. The other male character is a young, impulsive Tom Barclay, who is physically agressive and demanding. Joan is strongly attracted to him almost in spite of herself. The tension-filled relationships between Joan and Earl and Tom build through the course of the book.
The book shares a theme common to most of Cain's writing. As her schemes unravel, Joan says to herself: "And then at last I began to realize how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true." The book also shares many plot elements with Cain's famous books. In particular, "The Cocktail Waitress" reminds me of "Mildred Pierce" in that in tells the story of a young, highly sexual, single mother with a strong determination to better her condition in life, with little thought of the cost. Restaurants,food,and alcohol are integral to both books. Both books center upon an enigmatic female character; and, as in the portrayal of Mildred in "Mildred Pierce", Cain shows great insight into Joan's heart and mind in "The Cocktail Waitress".
The strongest scenes in the novel are those which capture Joan's deep disgust at the prospect of a physical relationship with Earl. The descriptions of the life of cocktail waitresses and other employees of bars and establishments also has a strong naturalistic tone. I enjoyed reading Cain's descriptions of the sexual underworld of the Washington, D.C. area in the 1950's at a time well before I knew the city. A contemporary noir writer, George Pelecanos, has taken this part of Washington, D.C. life as his subject.
This novel is not on the level of Cain's best writing. The story tends to wander, and it lacks tension. The dialogue is wordy and too extensive in places rather than pithy and terse. Some of the secondary scenes and characters receive too much attention and detract from the flow of the story. Although Charles Ardai did excellent work in piecing together Cain's various manuscripts (as he describes in an Afterword), there are inconsistencies in the final text and places where the joints creak and show.
It is valuable to have this, the final novel of James Cain, available at last. I have enjoyed reading further in Cain after getting to know his masterworks. Readers of noir and admirers of Cain will be interested in reading "The Cocktail Waitress." I am grateful for the opportunity to preview the book through the Vine program.
Anyway getting back to the review. The subject matter is salacious; we'd expect no less from James M. Cain. At times it even borders on the pornographic. But the gritty realism contained in the classic novels he authored four decades earlier just isn't there. In its place is a soap opera type feel where bad things just keep happening in defiance of all logic. Moreover, much of the dialogue comes off as stilted, not the way people really talk to each other.
As a long lost James M. Cain manuscript, The Cocktail Waitress is worth reading for its historical value. But as a work of literature, it falls a bit short.
The young, well-endowed protagonist of "Waitress" has fallen from grace by dint of a mid-adolescent romantic crisis leading to complete estrangement from her "Social Registry" parents. An early marriage to an abusive, alcoholic and rapid progression to widowhood, followed by destitution and resurrection (as a scantily-clad cocktail waitress in a bar-eatery) sets the scene. At the "Garden" she meets a preposterously wealthy, cadaverous, elderly and physically debilitated gentleman who (naturally) falls for her, despite the obvious problems presented by an infatuation of this sort including impotence which he ascribes to coronary atherosclerosis. Of course, a young, bold, handsome, "forward" n'er do well bar patron (the unidimensional Tom) makes the moves and both the chemistry and trajectory is set for the rest of the novel. The requisite "surprise" ending could only be unanticipated by a thalidomide-sedated reader.
From a literary perspective, the book is uninteresting: the style rigidly adheres to the formulaic approach of the era and the strictures of the genre. Character development is adequate, but no more than that. That might have been expected, as Cain writes in the first person and as the (female) protagonist. The dialogue is stilted and the rigidity of the plot is stifling. Nonetheless, it's an entertaining read, mostly as it perfectly embodies the "pink Cadillac" stereotypes popular at the time. Recall that this is the era when gay men were euphemistically referred to as "light in the loafers" provocatively clad women were "asking for it" and "Playboy" was considered racy stuff. Cain appears to be pandering to this mentality rather than striving for a worthy legacy to "Postman", "Pierce" or "Indemnity". From this perspective, he succeeds quite nicely. He remains best remembered for his earlier work.
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The story is told from the standpoint of Joan Medford, who is the widow of a...Read more