The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain

“Not every man’s death is a crime.”

It’s the sort of scenario we readers dream of … a “lost” novel found and brought to publication, but that is exactly what happened with The Cocktail Waitress, the “Lost Final” novel by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime, the novel includes an afterword by Charles Ardai in which he describes how he found the novel and the role of Max Allan Collins in the hunt. Crime fans owe a huge debt to Charles and Max for their continued contributions to the crime genre.

The Cocktail Waitress is narrated by Joan Medford, a shapely young “corn-husk blonde,” widow, and we meet her on the day of her husband’s funeral which happens to be the same day she lands a job as a cocktail waitress. Joan needs this job badly as she has no money, her Hyattsville house in a suburb of Washington DC is on the brink of foreclosure, and the utilities have been disconnected. Joan’s marriage to Ron wasn’t happy, and their life together ended when a very drunk Ron drove the car at 2 in the morning and met his death in a fatal crash.  

Things look bleak for Joan. Her hostile, barren, accusatory sister-in-law, Ethel, has agreed to take Joan’s small son, Tad, until Joan gets on her feet, but Joan knows that Ethel considers her an unfit mother and that’s she’s looking for any excuse to keep Tad permanently. But when good things happen to Joan, they happen fast. Although she has no experience, thanks to police sergeant Young, she lands a job at the Garden of Roses. So what if she has to wear a skimpy outfit? So what if the male customers think that Joan sells something on the side? Joan makes it clear that she’s not for sale. Well at least she’s not for sale unless she gets that flashy diamond hardware, third finger, left hand.

It’s on the day of her husband’s funeral, the first day on her new job as a cocktail waitress, that Joan meets the two men who play significant roles in the next stage of her life: Tom, the studly driver from the undertakers (who insists that Joan “blew him a kiss,” as he left her at her doorstep after the funeral), and the very wealthy Earl K. White–an older man who suffers from a touchy case of angina….

Joan is a very interesting, strange character. We know little of her past, but some facts roll out as the story unfolds.  She’s estranged from her family, and we learn from Joan “my mother hated me and my father cut me off.” Joan has to fight to survive, and while she tells her story in a seemingly straight-forward fashion, can we believe her version of events?

Did I put an extra sway in my step as I walked away, to make my hips jog and my bottom twitch? I may have. I know I unbuttoned an extra button on my blouse before turning around, tray in hand.

“Joan, there is something I’m curious to ask you”

I rejoined him at his table, and swapped a full bowl of Fritos for the half-full bowl in front of him. It was no more than I’d done at any of the dozen other tables at the bar. But perhaps I bent slightly lower doing it than was absolutely necessary. “What’s that, Mr. White?”

Earl, please.”

“I’d feel too familiar.”


“Earl, then.”


“What is it? What do you want to ask me?”

“I’m not usually tongue-tied, Joan, I just find myself somewhat distracted at the moment.”
I smiled and lowered my gaze, and said softly: “Pleasantly, I hope?”
“Most pleasantly.”

“But all the same, I don’t want to make it hard for us to have a conversation, Mr. –Earl.” I fastened up the lowest open button on my blouse. “Better?” 

That quote is a good example of the author’s style–no flashy prose style & everything seems fairly straightforward. The kicker to this novel is that there’s more than one way to read The Cocktail Waitress. You can read it straight, and believe every word that comes out of Joan’s somewhat prim and proper mouth, or you can start to question her as an unreliable narrator. If you take the first road, you’re going to read a meat-and-potatoes story, nothing fancy here. But, if you take the second facta non verba approach, then the novel’s power and intelligence hit you after you turn the last page, and slowly you’ll find yourself unravelling Joan’s narration with chilling results. There were a couple of times that Joan chose actions that seemed out of character but by the story’s conclusions, it all comes together in a sinister sort of way.

According to the afterword, Cain struggled with this novel for some time, and Charles Ardai, editor and founder of Hard Case Crime discusses finding the manuscript, its various drafts, and the way Cain experimented with various narrative voices. Cain took a chance writing The Cocktail Waitress through Joan’s voice, but its very boldness makes for a bigger payoff.



Filed under Cain James M, Fiction

14 responses to “The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain

  1. I haven’t read Cain in a long time but so far he never disappointed me.
    I like the idea that you can read it in two ways. I’m a bit suspicious when they find novels, I must admit. Did someone work on it? I can’t imagine he left a novel which was ready for publication.

    • To quote Charles Ardai: “we not only had a complete and finished manuscript, we had several, as well as several partial manuscripts and fragments, some consisting of no more than a few lines on a single sheet of notepaper, others going for a dozen pages or a few dozen. None of the manuscripts were dated, making establishing their order difficult.” There’s more but you get the point. Charles goes on to explain how he worked on the manuscript saying it was no more than other books that cross his desk in terms of alignment of details for “consistency.” Apparently some excellent scenes didn’t make it to later drafts, so they were added.

  2. Brian Joseph

    I too am a little leery about unreleased works found after an authors (or musicians) death. I think that maybe there was a good reason that they were not released!

    Based on your commentary it sounds like this one works.

    I have not read Cain but love some of the movies that i have seen based on his books.

  3. That cover is fantastic.

    Joan sounds like Jessica Rabbit “It’s not my fault if I’ve been created that way” 🙂

    It’s incredible that they found this novel unpublished and had nothing major to do to make it “publishable”.

    • It is incredible Emma. It’s one of those finds you dream about making, and thanks to Charles Ardai, who has great personal love for classic crime and noir, he made it see the light of day. Not that would have been any shortage of volunteers for this job, but I think Charles has the intuitive knowledge and basic respectful approach for a project of this significance.

  4. Canada must have been pretty confident in his understanding of women to write like that. I think I can see what Emma means re John Rabbit.

    What a discovery after all these years

  5. Annabel (gaskella)

    I’ve only read Double Indemnity by Cain, and it is a masterpiece. It’s good to know that there is another fab novel for after I read Postman, and Mildred Pierce which are on my shelf.

  6. Sorry – predictive text error in last comment. Am using a tablet today

  7. Extraordinary discovery. Like others I’m cautious of these post-mortem releases, but it does sound like it works.

    Classic Hard Case Crime Cover. Even in a cocktail bar that outfit would raise a few eyebrows…

  8. Nice review. Thanks. i gave this book to a friend, as a gift. I may seek it out again.

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