“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?”
“I’d feel too familiar.”
“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?”
“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.