James M. Cain
Hard Case Crime, September 2012
In Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain’s Depression-era novel, the title character is obsessed with money and status and tries to use her success as a businesswoman to buy the affection of her avaricious, self-centered daughter, Veda; she even embezzles from her own company to shower Veda with gifts.
In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain’s character Cora Papadakis engineers the death of her husband so she can take over his business. And in Double Indemnity, Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of an oil man, secretly takes out an accidental death insurance policy so she can profit from murdering him.
The pattern is clear: Cain’s femmes fatale are consumed by their desire for wealth and will commit crimes – even murder – to obtain it.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Joan Medford, the newly single protagonist of Cain’s last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, wears his acquisitive femme fatale archetype as snugly as the short shorts and she dons to peddle drinks after her abusive alcoholic husband dies in a car crash some think she deliberately arranged.
Joan is more like Mildred than Cora or Phyllis in the reason she wants the loot. Like Pierce, to Joan it’s a family affair: she needs money to get permanent custody of her son, who is temporarily in the care of her sister-in-law, Ethel, one of the main proponents of the theory Joan bumped off her husband, and she is determined to wrest control of the child from his mother.
But that’s where the parallel ends. Unlike Pierce, Joan is, to quote one minor character, “a goddamn good-looking gold digger” who uses her sexual allure to win the financial stability she needs to be together with her son.
What’s more, Joan is the only one of Cain’s women who speaks directly to readers without a narrative intermediary. Mildred Pierce’s sad tale of unrequited mother love unreels in classic narrative style, through the eyes of an unnamed omniscient third person observer. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Nirdlinger’s duplicity and viciousness is revealed through the first person account of her insurance broker accomplice, Walter Huff. And Cora Papadakis’s maneuverings in Postman are related in first person by the drifter who becomes her paramour and crime partner, Frank Chambers.
Joan Medford makes it clear to readers in the very first chapter that she is telling her story to them in her own words “in the hope of getting it printed to clear my name of the slanders against me . . . All I know to do is tell it and tell it all, including some things no woman would willingly tell.”
Complicating Joan’s story is the fact that the impoverished widow has two rivals competing for her hand almost before her dead husband is underground: Tom Barclay, a lustful but penniless stud who is equally full of testosterone and misdirected ambition, and Earl K. White III, a wealthy stockbroker with a bum ticker that will need more than an application of tape if he manages to work his way between Joan’s well-shaped thighs.
You can easily guess which one Joan targets.
As soon as White pops the question, Joan makes it clear to the reader where she is going:
“What I really felt . . . was pure exultation, that I’d put it over at last, this gigantic plan I’d had, that would give my [son] to me, on a lawn that he could play on, in a house we both could live in, as part of a world that we could be proud of.”
From the perspective of middle-class morality, Joan is unquestionably a hustler well worthy of her sister-in-law’s contempt: she is open – at least with her closest friend – about her reasons for trying to snare the wealthy but infirm White, and equally open about her lust for the youthful but feckless Barclay. As she tells the reader on several occasions, she has a short fuse and is quick to violence when crossed. We even see an example of her barely concealed rage when Barclay, who has been drinking heavily, puts his hand on her leg while she is waiting on his party at the bar. She furiously attacks him and hammers him to the floor before she is dragged off by others.
But nobody is without blame in this bleak noir; almost without exception, the characters that appear in The Cocktail Waitress are amoral and twisted: Joan’s best friend, Liz, is little more than a hooker who uses her waitressing job to line up sexual “dates” for money; her lover, Tom Barclay not only sexually assaults Joan on two separate occasions, but also inadvertently steers her into offering her house as surety for a politician pal who has been arrested for corruption; Barclay’s chum immediately jumps bail, putting one of Joan’s few assets at risk.
And the elderly White, despite his initially saintly demeanor, turns out to be obsessed with getting into Joan’s skin-tight pants, even at the risk of triggering an angina attack that would make an orgasm fatal. Despite his illness and advanced years, White, too, attempts to take Joan by force – and, when he is foiled, he turns to prostitutes in an effort to satisfy his libido.
The Cocktail Waitress is peopled with as black-hearted a group of villains as Cain has ever created. And front and center among them is our “heroine,” Joan Medford.
Before the 254-page novel is done, Joan is not only suspected of killing her first husband, but also of slaying two other men. And in a twist ending befitting our twisted protagonist, Cain sets her up for a particularly horrific type of cosmic justice. No spoilers here, except to say that the way Joan begins to relieve her stress late in the book foreshadows a development that isn’t even hinted at until the very last page of the novel – with a deliciously ironic conclusion that I, for one, found remarkably effective.
Cain started The Cocktail Waitress in 1975 and worked on it until his death in 1977 without ever quite polishing the manuscript sufficiently for publication. He showed versions to acquaintances and his agent, but never managed to pull together a final, comprehensive draft. It was kicking around in a variety of more-or-less finished versions for years, but didn’t come together in publishable form until long-time Cain enthusiast Charles Ardai (Little Girl Lost, Fifty-to-One) pieced it together from Cain’s extensive notes and the various fragments he tracked down.
Last September, a final version of the book edited by Ardai finally saw publication under his Hard Case Crime imprint, and the finished product is simply sensational: The Cocktail Waitress boasts the Cain universe’s signature blend of figures from high and low society: the priggish and the sex-obsessed. It also features the violent undercurrent of passion that seems to throb like a runaway pulse just under the surface of most of Cain’s novels.
I have always loved Cain for his use of language – not the poetic phrasing of a Keats or Shelly, but the terse, hard-boiled argot of the petty grifter, the criminal, the hustler on the make. Here you will find exactly that deft use of dialog, in which the high-born and low-born each have their own unique diction and vocabularies, but the words they use can’t mask the base nature of their motivation. The Cocktail Waitress is true to this fundamental Cain tradition, in which bourgeois manners shroud greed, vanity and sexual desire with only the sheerest veil of civilization.
As Cain himself put it in the notes that Ardai consulted while editing the novel: “[The] whole book should turn on the hot, close, sweaty female smell of the cocktail bar . . . Joan’s setting the theme – her walk, her attachments, the contours of her legs, her smell . . .”
For a novel that has been in limbo nearly 36 years, the novel is as sweet a read today as if Cain had finished it last week. In every respect, The Cocktail Waitress is a five-noose keeper!