Along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain is widely recognized as a giant of hardboiled crime fiction. It’s actually a weird kind of recognition; Cain’s books are taught in universities, students submit projects on him, yet he is regarded as a cheap pulp fiction author, one who titillates and creates sensation through sin, scandal, and repulsive violence. Even Time magazine infamously described his works as “carnal and criminal”.
But you wouldn’t care if your books sold millions of copies and were translated into twenty languages. So Cain never bothered about his critics and right from his debut novel to his last, his books were shocking, disturbing, and dangerous (if print can ever be dangerous). Classic crime stories like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are perfect examples. Do you know Cain wrote about a seductress stealing her mother’s lover even before Nabokov came up with Lolita?
The brutal voice of Cain is back once more, 35 years after his death. Just before his demise in 1977, the writer completed his final novel — The Cocktail Waitress. It was not published during his lifetime and the manuscript was lost after his death. Charles Ardai, the editor of the book, came across rumors of a final book and after nine years of relentless searching his mission was successful. The Cocktail Waitress is out in the market now (Titan Books).
The subject matter of The Cocktail Waitress is salacious, but we expect nothing less from Mr. Cain. Told from first person perspective, it delineates the story of a young widow — Joan Medford. Her husband dies of an accident, police treats Joan as a possible suspect, and Joan takes up a job in a restaurant to sustain herself and her son. Our skimpily clad sensual heroine attracts a lot of attention in her workplace; cops, amorous affairs, and Joan’s secret past forms an intricate web that makes it difficult to decide if the girl in question is a scheming criminal. There are some surprises towards the end.
The Cocktail waitress is a standard James M. Cain book, which delivers what it promises. It is a collector’s item due to its historical significance, so you might want to taste Cain’s femme fatale.