Category Archives: Cain James M

The Magician’s Wife: James M. Cain (1965)

While James M. Cain will always be remembered for Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, there are quite a few lesser-known works well worth reading. Last year, Hard Case Crime published a lost Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress, and now Mysterious Press has resurrected a number of obscure Cain titles:

  • Sinful Woman
  • Root of His Evil
  • Galatea
  • Mignon
  • Jealous Woman
  • Rainbow’s End
  • The Institute
  • Cloud Nine
  • The Enchanted Isle
  • The Moth
  • The Magician’s Wife

Most of these titles have been out-of-print, and these novels are now available in e-format for the first time.

the magicians wifeThe Magician’s Wife opens with Clay Lockwood, the confident, affluent owner of Grants, a meat-packing business, stopping at Portico, a Maryland branch of a chain of restaurants. While he appears to be just another customer, he’s there thanks to a lucrative deal selling corned beef to the Portico chain and wants to make sure that the cooks handle the pre-cooked meat correctly. Lockwood notices one of the waitresses, a very attractive woman named Sally Alexis, and they square off in a meeting laced with attraction, desire, and sexual innuendo. Since this is noir fiction, it should come as no surprise that Sally and Lockwood begin a torrid, explosive affair that night. One night in the sack, and Lockwood is ready to call the preacher to seal the deal. But there’s a hitch: Sally is married and has a small child. Her husband, a small-time magician, has made his current stage assistant his latest mistress, and the marriage has been sour for some time.

Since Lockwood is a very affluent man with all the material things in life that he wants, he’s more than ready for Sally to divorce her deadbeat husband, take her kid and move in to his swanky apartment with him. Permanently. But Sally isn’t so hot on the idea. See there’s the matter of a few million dollars, and a couple of bodies are in the way of Sally and the money that she thinks is rightfully hers….

It showed through, like the blue on a corpse’s fingernails, what she was hoping for. What she means to do, perhaps. If she gets help.

Sally is, of course, a classic noir femme fatale–sexy, manipulative, cunning, and she’s also more than a little unhinged. Not that that makes her any less attractive to Lockwood, who has a real problem when it comes to dealing with women. When Sally goes too far one evening, Lockwood decides to move on to calmer pastures. Unfortunately, once Sally has her teeth in a man, she doesn’t let go easily.

The Magician’s Wife is not Cain’s finest work, so I don’t want to claim that, but as a Cain fan, it was one of those books I couldn’t pass up. One of the enjoyable aspects of the story is the way in which Cain makes it clear that a femme fatale may be dangerous, explosive and destructive, but all those negative qualities are magnified when she hooks up with a malleable man with weak morality or issues of one sort or another. Lockwood is a case in point. Any sane man would run from Sally’s kind of trouble, but Lockwood’s ego gets in the way–for a while at least. And it’s perfect that Cain created Lockwood as the owner of the meat-packing plant. There’s something not quite healthy about his carnivorous appetite. He aggressively seeks out contracts for meat, and he’s equally aggressive in his lustful approaches to Sally–even though his common sense tells him to end the relationship.

That vanity was his trouble, inflamed by obsessive desire; that was his great source of strength, the element in his nature that drove him ahead in business, riding all the obstacles down, could also be his weakness; that this giddy twin sister of pride could have a soft underbelly, loving praise above everything else, especially this girl’s praise, and dreading her phony scorn.

Cain creates an interesting cast of characters for this book; there’s Sally’s husband The Great Alexis aka Alec Gorsuch, the heir to the Gorsuch fortune who works as a two-bit magician at the Lilac Flamingo and his cheap tarty assistant, Busty Buster. There’s also Sally’s mother, artist Grace Simone. I can’t give away too much of the plot here, but there’s a development between Lockwood and Grace Simone that didn’t quite gel for me, but after finishing the book and chewing the story over, I came to the conclusion that the ultimate femme fatale is arguably one who comes in disguise. I had to reread the last line several times and ask myself who got what they wanted in the end….

Review copy

8 Comments

Filed under Cain James M, Fiction

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.”

“Please.”

“Earl, then.”

“I…”

“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.

14 Comments

Filed under Cain James M, Fiction