Author: James M. Cain (posthumous publication)
Deliciously ambivalent, James M. Cain’s posthumously published (September 2012) The Cocktail Waitress drives an aroma of nostalgia for his noir novels published in the 70’s and his fine criminal finesse. Told in the first person by protagonist Mrs. Joan Medford, we can’t be certain if she’s a cleverly psychopathic three time murderer, or an innocent victim of her need to keep her three year old son, Tad, at any cost to herself. And Cain, even posthumously, maintains his greatness for piercing his reader with the poisoned arrow – tantalizingly and forcefully.
Joan, a mixture of sex and innocence, tells her tale of woe. Her Social Register family disowns her when she turns up pregnant at 17 and marries low life alcoholic Ron. Ron is abusive, and after one early morning fight, Joan locks him out of the house. Ron cranks up a car supposedly loaned to him by a friend and smashes himself into a culvert wall.
Joan seems to attract men like bees, and one of the investigating cops finds her a job as a cocktail waitress. Ron’s sister Ethel takes 3 year old Tad as Joan has no means of supporting him.
Cain magnificently creates Joan, the conniving, manipulative sex kitten with great legs and juxtaposes her against the men she seduces and manipulates. She waits on sick and elderly Earl White III, and presents her classy lady/sex goddess self to him on a silver platter as she winds him into her web. When Earl gives her $50,000 to help her out, Joan decides to get him to marry her. Enter Tom Barclay, sexy, tough and handsome, and Joan wants both men.
The pivot is Ethel and Tad. Ethel despises Joan and wants to keep 3 year Tad as she cannot have children of her own. The tension mounts. Is Ethel right about her suspicions of Joan or is Ethel simply a woman who must have Tad as her own?
Joan and Earl marry although Earl cannot have sex due to his heart condition. Joan is repulsed by him, but figures she can still have Tom. But Earl has to have sex with Joan – that is his obsession. When Joan gets a massage girl to come and get Earl turned on without sex so he won’t die and she won’t have to do him herself, Earl has a heart attack. We wonder if Joan is who she says she is, but she is the narrator – humph. Along with Joan’s narrative of events, her cocktail waitress friend Liz throws a nice counter to the possible skew of Joan’s narration.
And then Tom Barclay ends up dead too, supposedly suicidal because he can’t have Joan. Triple murderess? Or Marilyn Monroe victim?
Rapturously devious, as noir as noir can get, Cain puts us into Joan’s stilettos and her not so fastidious sense of integrity as we gnaw on the bone. Brilliant, the author of Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice reaches beyond death in his previously unpublished – til now – last novel to shrill die hard crime fans into the piercing plot and eternal question – when does innocence become evil?
The Cocktail Waitress (Hardcase Crime) is finally available to the public
Ratings are based on a 5-star scale
Review by Broad “A” – Ava
We received a copy of this title for our book review. All opinions are our own.