Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain (2012)

James M Cain's posthumously
published novel
Hard Case Crime (Titan), 2012
Cover by Michael Koelsch
One of Cain’s tentative working titles for this novel was American Beauty. The book reads like a romantic melodrama, but for readers over a certain age who will remember the significance of a drug Joan is given by a friend while she’s on honeymoon, the novel takes on an added dimension. This is a horror story.

Most of the details given here come only from the first 11 pages. The story opens at a funeral where twenty-one year-old mother Joan Medford is burying her husband Ron. Joan hasn’t lost much sleep over Ron’s death; he’d always resented the marriage he felt forced into when Joan became pregnant, and even as his coffin is being lowered into his grave, Joan and Tad are both still recovering from his last beating. The last time he’d come home drunk Joan had sent him packing and he’d driven a borrowed car into a culvert wall at 70mph.

His sister Ethel makes it clear she believes Joan deliberately sent him to his death. Joan has to bite her tongue as she has to depend on Ethel to take care of her small boy Tad, while she looks for work. Ethel is only too pleased to have Tad in her care; she and her husband Jack Lucas are childless, she’s recently had a hysterectomy, and it’s clear she’s going to have a problem letting go of the boy.

James Mallahan Cain
(July 1 1892 - October 27 1977)
Photo by William L Klender
Also at the funeral is Tom Barclay who’s standing in for another cab-driver and is strongly taken by a glimpse at the young widow’s legs.

When Joan gets home, she’s visited by Sergeant Young and Private Church, who advise her that someone has been attempting to blacken her name by spreading rumours about her. The officers had previously met Joan when informing her of her husband’s death; now Joan guesses that Ethel is spreading rumours, attempting to have her declared an ‘unfit mother’ for Tad. Learning that she’ll have to seek work, Sergeant Young suggests she try waitressing at The Garden of Roses restaurant.

Joan quickly makes new friends there, and her looks make her popular with the customers. Two of these are Earl K White the III, a wealthy investor in his sixties, and the young and attractive Tom Barclay. Very quickly this develops into a romantic triangle, with Joan having to decide between an elderly and wealthy investor with a heart condition, who physically revolts her, and an attractive but penniless young man.

Whether the story has the same impact on readers will depend largely on whether the reader is familiar with the name of a drug introduced in the late 1950s and banned in the early 1960s. Some won't get it, though many will continue to read James Ardai’s enlightening afterword. This has all the elements of a detective story as Ardai reveals how he learned of Cain’s unpublished novel, the search for it, the discovery that it existed in more than one version, and gives some details of what must have been an agonizing editorial process of collating and refining numerous pieces of a literary jig-saw until the novel had (hopefully) reached a state that it’s author would have been satisfied with.

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