The Blog

Review of James M Cain's The Cocktail Waitress

With all the fuss over the AMC series Mad Men, it was only a matter of time before someone got around to resurrecting those stalwarts of LA noir, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and, of course, the late great James M Cain. Earlier this year, HBO screened an adaptation of the author's Mildred Pierce as a mini-series and BBC Radio 4 has produced a number of Chandler's works. And the trend looks set to continue.

Though Cain has been dead some thirty-five years (he suffered a fatal heart attack in October 1977), the Hard Crime imprint will publish the writer's "new" novel, which he was apparently working on before he died. The practice of publishing author's unfinished works is not without controversy. In Cain's case, I can't help but wonder how the writer would have revised his book. Don't get me wrong, The Cocktail Waitress is delightful.

The story takes place in suburban Washington DC in the 1950s and follows the adventures of the recently widowed Joan Medford, who is implicated in her husband's accidental death. To make ends meet, Medford takes a job as the titular cocktail waitress in a local bar - and is an instant hit. Cain's women - or rather "broads" - can more than hold their own and it isn't long before Medford's terrific "gams" and other assets are attracting the attention of good-looking young dreamer Tom Barclay, and ailing businessman Mr White. Joan beats up the former and marries the latter in an attempt to provide a home and security for her young son. And that's where things get complicated...

Cain creates terrific characters, but here he piles on the coincidences, almost to breaking point. As it is, The Cocktail Waitress carries a few extra pounds she could do with losing. If only this book was as tauntly structured as The Postman Always Rings Twice. Nevertheless, this is a very welcome addition to the Cain cannon and in Joan Medford we have a heroine we can all root for.