"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.