James M. Cain,
The Cocktail Waitress
(Hard Case Crime, 2012)

The late James M. Cain (no relation) burst on the literary scene with two masterpieces published back to back: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. These books established him as the toughest of the hard-boiled writers, a writer with no sentiment whose characters lived in a world of self-delusion, a world where they always had big plans and were never quite bright enough to pull them off. Cain may have been tough, but he was a moralist at heart whose characters always had to face up to the consequences of their action.

For years after his 1977 death, word circulated that there was another novel out there somewhere, a book he finished shortly before his death, but which somehow disappeared. Hard Case Crime editor Charles Adlai tracked the book down -- his afterword tells the story of how he found it -- edited it and now has published it.

If The Cocktail Waitress is not another Cain classic, it is certainly a serviceable novel, well worth reading. While it does not rise to the level of his best work, it has its moments and builds to a finish you won't easily forget.

Joan Medford is the battered wife of a brutal drunk who physically abuses both Joan and the couple's son, Tad. His accidental death in a car wreck looks suspicious to the cops and leaves Joan penniless. She sends her son to stay temporarily with her sister-in-law, a woman who also feels Joan is responsible for the death and has no intention of giving Tad back. To get herself back on her feet financially, Joan takes a job in a bar as a waitress and meets Earl White, an older man with a heart problem who takes an interest in her and eventually marries her. A younger man that she has feelings for comes into the mix and gives us the familiar James M. Cain situation: the beautiful young woman with an old husband she does not love becomes attracted to another man.

The suspense in the novel builds from this situation. The Cocktail Waitress is never a dull book and contains enough twists to keep you reading. Had it come from a different author, I would have responded to it differently, I know, but when James M. Cain's name is attached to a book, there's a large set of expectations attached to it. This novel gives pleasure but you'll want to go back and re-read the Cain classics when you finish it.

And that's not a bad thing.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

1 December 2012

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