James M. Cain was one of the giants of hardboiled crime fiction in the 1930’s and 40’s, beginning his career as a novelist with the classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice” in 1934, followed by “Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Pierce” the following decade. Although his most famous books came early in his career, he continued to write and publish right up until his death in 1977, at the age of 85. So, you ask, why a review now?
Well, that would be because this book, his last, was never published. After his death it languished, in multiple manuscript forms, in the boxes of his old literary agent and his own papers housed in the Library of Congress. There were tantalizing references to it as a work in progress from interviews he gave before his death, but with no widow or children, there was apparently no one with an interest in seeing it published. Until 2002, when the publishing imprint of Hard Case Crime was being discussed, and editor Charles Ardai was put on the trail. Like a good detective, he managed to track down not one, but several of the manuscripts, and undertook the daunting task of bringing them together in a final, edited form that lost nothing of the authentic voice of James M. Cain.
I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.
Which brings us to “The Cocktail Waitress” (by Titan Publishing), the lost final novel of James M. Cain. Written as the memoir of the protagonist, Joan Medford, it charts her path from penniless, abused widow to… ah, but that would be giving the plot away. Let’s just say it’s a tortuous path to an unexpected and disturbing conclusion.
It is vintage Cain, harking back to his greatest and best known novels. If you are of an age with me (mid-fifties) or older, you’ll have the cultural references for some elements of the story to make you cringe. If the final page doesn’t make you sit there and say “Aw, crap”, then read the afterword by Charles Ardai.
The kicker to this book, which hooked me in enough that I sat up an entire night reading it, is that when you’re done, it sneaks back in to haunt you. I found myself paging back through for descriptions of this snippet, that clue, and wondering…
And knowing that there can never be a wrap-it-all-up-in-a-tidy-bow sequel, the questions you’re left with can never be answered… just like life. We’re stuck with that shivery thrill until we can ask James Cain to his face “So what happened to Joan?”
Which I suppose is why I’m probably going to go to the library and check out some of his other books… me, who’s never been a fan of “hardboiled crime fiction”. Kudos, Mr. Cain, you hooked another one!