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Book Review: The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain

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“James Cain–faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way. Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated. A brothel with a smell of cheap scent in the front parlor and a bucket of slops at the back door. Do I, for God’s sake, sound like that?”
– Raymond Chandler

And Chandler was right. While Chandler, and before him Hammett, wrote what became the hardboiled genre, Cain was lumped into that genre and was considered one of its masters. But looking back, Cain’s books and stories were nothing like the tales of the hardboiled detectives of Chandler and Hammett. Chandler wrote protagonists who walked “…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything.” Cain’s protagonists were mean. They were tarnished and often very afraid. They were ordinary people and rarely heroes.

Although Cain vehemently opposed labeling, he is usually associated with the hardboiled school. In actuality he was creating a new genre or subgenre and one that would rise to the top when the hardboiled school was losing its interest. What Cain did, along with Cornell Woolrich, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, and David Goodis, was create “noir fiction”–or as the French labeled it, “roman noir.” Black books. Noir often features sleazy character instead of untarnished knights in fedoras, often very tarnished, very often despicable, and very often consumed by those mean streets. As Charles Ardai says in the Afterword of the reviewed book, “Cain was a dabbler in sin and scandal, a purveyor of the lurid and low.” Carnal and criminal. Cain was a “hoary old sensation monger” said Time magazine.

And that is exactly what we get with The Cocktail Waitress. Joan Medford is the protagonist of the novel. Recently widowed when her abusive husband drove off in the wee hours of the morning, in a borrowed car, drunk and angry, killing himself. He’s left Joan, just 21 years old, in a house that is heavily mortgaged, the utilities disconnected, and taking care of a young son who also suffered abuse at the hands of his father. Joan has no prospects, and no job experience. What’s worse is the police refuse to close the case. They think that there is a distinct possibility that Joan somehow caused the crash.

One sympathetic police sergeant tells Joan that he can get her a job waiting tables at The Garden, and once the owner sees her, she puts her in a skimpy outfit in the cocktail lounge. There Joan meets two men. The first is a young, handsome dreamer with prospects, Tom Barclay. The other is an older gentleman, pot bellied, tall and gangly, and not possessing any sex appeal for Joan. But Earl K. White III is rich. He is successful. And he also falls for Joan. But Earl suffers from angina and has been warned by his doctor that having sex would kill him. Still, every night he leaves Joan a $20 tip, that being a tidy sum in the early ‘60s when the novel is set.

The story is told by Joan, as a tape recording, as she puts it, “It’s in the hope of getting it printed to clear my name of the slander against me, in connection with the job and the marriage it led to and all that came after____.”  What follows is Joan in an innocent voice, one that displays at once naiveté and a conspirator’s black heart, detailing the events of the next few months. She tries to justify her motives for marrying Earl in order to provide her young son with a privileged upbringing. And she tries to justify her love affair with Tom.

Where Cain flourished was in being that Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. And that shines through in the character of Joan. Joan walks a line between greed and ambition. She justifies her actions as being a sacrifice for her son, but even as she tries to justify it, the greed leaks through. Cain achieved this ‘dirty way’ of writing in his earlier books Postman, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity. By the mid-fifties his works no longer garnered the commercial and critical success of his writings of the ‘30s and ‘40s. 

Cocktail Waitress isn’t a rival of that earlier work. Instead, it does display the ability to walk that fine line with his characters. And that part of it is masterful. The story is somewhat original, but don’t look for groundbreaking achievements or new twists on this tale of greed and avarice. The character of Joan even bares a resemblance to Mildred Pierce, but this tale is told from the female lead’s point of view.

At times the plot wanders, and it’s no wonder when you consider that Charles Ardai used numerous manuscripts, notes, and other writings to finally present the story to the public. The words are Cain’s but whether he would have put it together this way is something we may never know. At times the narrator seems to change her voice but it soon comes back to the point at hand. You can almost feel two different versions of the tale being welded together in places. What the reader is left with is a story that differs from most of Cain’s work. It’s not tight, flint-edged, and arrow straight. Still, it is vintage Cain and won’t disappoint in the least.

And, as if to prove he still had the master’s hand, Cain writes an ending the reader will never see coming. It’s as if the car driven by that drunk and abusive husband was meant to run the reader down. Stephen King called the book a reader’s novel. It is that, and one that fans of noir or hardboiled books will have to have on their shelf; but it’s also a novel for the casual fan. The Cocktail Waitress may just be pedestrian Cain, but it’s still a tale from James M. Cain–and a lot of writers today would like to duplicate even pedestrian Cain.

The Cocktail Waitress (Hardcase Crime)

  • Hardcover: 272 pages Publisher: Hard Case Crime / Titan Books (September 18, 2012) Language: English ISBN-10: 1781160325 ISBN-13: 978-1781160329
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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.
  • HoldenMacGroin

    I’ll take Cain over Chandler any day. Hammett was also much better than Chandler. Agree on the ending.