WHEN you strike a match, the flame burns blue closest to the source of combustion. For most of his prolific career, James M Cain had the blue flame burning in his explorations of greed, passion and murder.
The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain
Titan Books, 272pp, £16.99
Novels like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice sizzled with it, and Hollywood’s adaptations served him both faithfully and well.
Now along comes his “lost” and last novel, The Cocktail Waitress. While this story of a femme fatale with a gut-turning cosmic comeuppance at the end smoulders and burns bright at times, it doesn’t quite sustain the blue-hot source of human combustion found in his earlier work. It certainly entertains, but it also disappoints.
Cain died in 1977 aged 85, his immense popularity long gone. The Cocktail Waitress was the manuscript he laboured over in his final years. Or perhaps “manuscripts” is a better description. The published novel was drawn together by the editor Charles Ardai from multiple manuscripts and notes found in places thousands of miles apart. Set in the early 1960s, the story follows the travails of a beautiful young mother, Joan Medford, who finds herself with nothing but the suspicions of police and family when her abusive husband dies in the crash of a borrowed car.
Joan is left with a young son to raise and an over-mortgaged house with no electricity or gas, or adequate food in the kitchen. With a metaphoric sheen of desperation on her brow, she gets down to business. She passes the child temporarily into the care of a conniving sister-in-law, who wants it to be a permanent arrangement, and takes the first job offer that comes her way as a suggestively clad cocktail waitress at a restaurant bar called the Garden of Roses. The owner of the establishment sizes her up in a way the reader by now already has: “Something about you doesn’t quite match up.”
Joan is a hit in her peasant blouse and short shorts, raking in big tips, talking matter-of-factly to customers and fellow employees, and not suffering the wandering hands of patrons very well. One can’t help considering Joan Crawford – winner of the Academy Award for her 1945 portrayal of Mildred Pierce – as a likely influence on Joan Medford. Cain also borrows from Mildred Pierce the premise of a woman left in dire financial straits after a bad marriage. But this time the femme fatale tells her own story, the narration coming direct from Joan in the form of a self-taped statement setting the record straight. The setup leaves the reader to decide whether Joan is telling the truth, or the truth as only she sees it.
Joan meets and becomes involved with two different men at the Garden of Roses. Tom Barclay is a young and handsome dreamer. Earl White is older, sickly and rich beyond anything Joan has ever imagined. Both men want her, and she wants them – or, at least, part of them. Here is where Cain works that line between desire and lust, following it to the place where desperation turns to greed:
“I lay there in bed that night, thinking him over. If he really did have prospects, that might put things in a different light, though of course ‘prospects’ was only a way of saying he might someday have some fraction of what Mr. White already had for sure today. At the same time, he did have, in spades, what Mr. White did not, what we might term a physical appeal, not just being good looking and young but having a presence to him, a scent almost, that took something loose inside a woman and coiled it up tight.”
The deficiency is that the story is not coiled as tightly as Joan. It meanders across both human nature and geographic terrain. Plot seams occasionally show or are obvious far in advance of the denouement. Though narrated by Joan, the story is at times stilted and awkward, as if Cain has lost the thread of his character’s voice. But at other points, the mundane aspects of Joan’s money management, and her relentless efforts to get the lights turned back on and her son back home, are real, endearing and fully absorbing. At still other times the self-knowledge Joan possesses is perfect and some of the best stuff Cain ever put down on paper:
“So I went up, took off my things, lay down and closed my eyes. Then at last I knew the truth: My beautiful dream, that I’d worked and schemed and plotted for, and then at last had made come true, in one ghastly, dreadful moment, had exploded in my face…
“And then at last I began to realise how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true.”
No author was better at that sort of grim realisation of the price of one’s desires than James M Cain. This book is not vintage Cain, but it is Cain nevertheless, and that makes it a worthwhile read.
Fittingly for the endpoint of a long and meaningful career, Cain saves his best twist for the very last page of his very last book, a haymaker from the blind side, so carefully finessed and camouflaged through the book as to bring a tear to a glass eye – another writer’s jealous acknowledgment. It is a moment that draws Joan’s world and Cain’s view of desire and consequence into tight focus. One thinks of the author well into his ninth decade, setting down those final passages with a hidden smile and a writer’s certain knowledge that they won’t see this coming. He was right.
The Cocktail Waitress contains an afterword by the editor, Ardai, that rightfully makes a case for Cain’s lofty position in the pantheon of noir writers and details how the “lost” novel was found and published 35 years after his death. This reads like a good detective story, with Ardai relentlessly pursuing the rumour of a final novel for nine years, collecting pieces of the story and then whole manuscripts from locations as disparate as the Library of Congress and the archived files of a long-dead Hollywood agent. It’s fascinating, and the work of the editor rectifying the differences among the undated material was daunting. But finding one of the complete manuscripts in an agent’s files does raise the question of whether this was a “lost” novel or one that was simply put aside and forgotten after its author’s death.
If nothing else, that mistake has now been corrected.