The Cocktail Waitress

The Cocktail Waitress
James M. Cain, editor Charles Ardai, 2012

Premise: This is a previously unpublished novel by Cain (1892-1977), drawn together from several finished manuscripts and the author’s notes. Joan Medford’s life was looking up when her husband died. Despite taking on his debt, she was relieved to be free of him. That was until her sister-in-law tried to adopt her son against her will, and the police believed that she had something to do with her husband’s death. She’ll do what she must to survive, despite her heart, if she can figure out what, exactly to do.

This has been described as a noir story from the perspective of the femme fatale, and it is that, in a way. It’s in the first person, so you have to decide whether Joan is telling the truth or not. You could also read it as the straightforward account of a woman in a bad situation who does what she can, what she thinks is right at the time, or maybe isn’t right, but could turn out best. When her plans falter and fall through, she’s as hurt as anyone.

The most interesting question for me, therefore, is whether both can be true. Joan makes the best decisions she can... maybe. And the truth of it is that other people are damaged by their interactions with her, despite her intentions. So if she is a ‘femme fatale’, are women in other noirs who destroy others just pushed by circumstance at the wrong time?

I’ve only read one other Cain novel (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and it’s been a while. This does seem firmly in his wheelhouse, though, all about people making morally dubious decisions because of their dreams and their desires and suffering for it.

I loved reading this, incidentally. It’s painful in a good way. I empathized with Joan’s pain and struggle, even as I saw her trying to decide between two bad paths. She’s trapped, by society, by her situation, and increasingly by her own choices.

The prose is occasionally gorgeous, although it’s no Chandler, much blunter and more earthy.

(Side Note: The end has a heartrending sucker punch that’s easy to miss if you’re under 40. Read the afterword.)

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


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