November 1, 2012

Off the Shelf: The Cocktail Waitress

Title: The Cocktail Waitress
Author: James M. Cain
Illustrator: Michael Koelsch
Publisher: Hard Case Crime

Hard Case Crimes has a knack for finding long lost novels from esteemed crime writers long since gone, and The Cocktail Waitress is no exception to this list of unknown buried treasures. Although most mainstream audiences may be unfamiliar of the name James M. Cain, Double IndemnityThe Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce will certainly ring a bell to even those oblivious to hard boiled novels.

Like most of Cain’s fiction, it has the first person narrator looking back at past events, a scandalous murder, the beautiful fatale, and the dull, rich, and naive husband. However, there are enough deviations, such as the fact that it’s up to interpretation whether the narrator is lying about the murders or if they weren’t murders, as well as the sheer fact that the narrator is the fatale, that keep The Cocktail Waitress from being all too familiar.

Speaking of the female narrator, Cain hits the nail on the head for Joan Medford, who isn’t quite the femme fatale you may be expecting. Beautiful yet flawed? Certainly, but Cain gives Medford much more complexity than simply making her a hard boiled cutout. Sure she’s a cocktail waitress, but only so she can make good enough wages to win back the custody of her son. In fact, most of Joan’s motivations concern her son Tad, which (if you accept her at face value) makes her an understandable and often sympathetic character. It’s not about marrying a rich man simply for the money, it’s about marrying Mr. White in order to gain her kid’s custody back. And if it isn’t enough marrying a homely man with angina, she starts to fall for a much younger and more handsome man.

In fact, that’s what makes this work. James M. Cain tried to distance himself from being called a hard boiled or mystery writer, and rightfully so. James M. Cain’s greatest strength is not the mystery and scandal, but rather his ability to write surprisingly human and honest stories. Even if you took out the deaths, it would still be a poignant story of a cocktail waitress doing her best to win back her son, even if it means having to give up her sense of pride. In fact, my favorite moments are when Joan Medford works at Garden of Roses, particularly when she loses her temper at Tom for being a not so gentlemanly customer.

Ironically, I started to lose interest once [SPOILER ALERT!!!] Joan Medford got married to Earl K. White. There were some moments that shined, particularly Joan using her wit to keep Earl K. White from forgetting his angina condition and moving the marriage into more intimate matters. [SPOILER ENDED] At this point it felt like the gears had shifted and I was reading a duller version of The Cocktail Waitress that lacked the character development and exciting promises that the earlier acts had.

Fortunately, The Cocktail Waitress completely redeems itself at the final act. The scandal that’s been talked about since the beginning of the novel breaks free, and James M. Cain fans should be pleased to find that he didn’t lose his touch with making gripping suspense out of human tragedy. It’s a frustrating act and I mean that as a high praise. Those who sympathize with Joan will be on the edge of their seats hoping she makes it through, while those who believe she’s nothing but a liar will be as frustrated as the press is. Either way, the final moments will completely grip you, and although the knots are loose on purpose, it’s still very much a satisfying ending.

Is this the long lost masterpiece James M. Cain fans have been looking for? The companion to Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice? Not really. Nonetheless, The Cocktail Waitress provides an entertaining read that has some great Cain moments. And although Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice are must reads, The Cocktail Waitress isn’t such a bad start for anyone wanting to delve into Cain’s works.

Andrew Hudson



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