Review by Ben Macnair
Publisher: Titan Books Ltd (Hard Case Crime) 2013
ISBN: 978-1781160343 PB
Written when James M. Cain was 83 years old, and lost in his archive for many years, The Cocktail Waitress was eventually released in 2012. The novel covers many of the themes with which Cain first came to prominence.
Seen as one of the three most influential early writers in the noir crime genre, alongside Raymond Carver and Dashiell Hammett, Cain’s work focuses on the less glamourous side, the people that are beaten down by experience, looking for a way out of a bleak situation, but also with strong characterisation and three-dimensional figures. Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity and The Post Always Rings Twice became as well known for their film adaptations as they were for the novels, cementing Cain’s reputation, with both fans, and many critics.
So much of what makes Cain’s work so distinctive is found In The Cocktail. We first meet Joan Medford at her husband’s funeral. Ron has died in a car accident, but Joan is under suspicion of wrongdoing, and her sister-in-law Ethel wants custody of Ron and Joan’s son, three-year-old son, Tad forever. Ron was a violent man, and his death, tragic as it was for his family, is not really grieved. Joan is only 21, having lived a dramatic life already. When after the funeral, a kindly policeman suggests a job to her, Joan’s life changes completely.
It is whilst working in The Garden of Roses as a waitress and behind the bar that Joan meets the rich, but unattractive Mr White. She also meets the very attractive, and younger Tom Barclay, and so a classic noir love triangle is formed.
When first writing in the 1930s and 1940’s moral values were different, and when the Cocktail Waitress was written in 1975, things were different again. Finally published in 2012, it meant that Cain’s novel was first revealed to a more sensitive audience, who read the characters in different ways.
Is Joan a femme fatale? Is she just trying to find her way through a life that has been so dramatic?
Does her marriage to Mr White, and the events that unfold, mean that she is the victim or the maker of her circumstances?
These questions are all up to the reader to answer. The Cocktail Waitress is a book that is packed full of detail, that goes along very quickly, and packs more action, adventure, moral dilemma and unforeseen situations into its first fifty pages than most books have in their entirety.
If you are already a fan of the genre, then the book is for you, but it is also a good study of the writing of a man well into his 80’s, who still had stories to tell and absolutely nothing to prove. He died in 1977.