Review: The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain

4th October 2012

*I received this novel from the publisher Hard Case Crime, in exchange for an honest review.

If you’ve mourned the loss of truly good pulp fiction, I’ve got good news for you: James M. Cain’s previously lost final novel, The Cocktail Waitress, doesn’t shortchange in atmosphere, story, or a sensual femme fatale. Joan Medford opens her novel – and indeed it is her story – with the recollection of her first husband’s funeral. Abusive and alcoholic, Ron Medford pounded on his small son one last time before leaving and crashing his car into a culvert. A rookie cop has it in his head that Joan helped him on his way. Broke, scared, and desperate to tear her son from the clutches of her derisive sister-in-law, Joan takes a job as a cocktail waitress and meets two men – one, a broke idealist who tempts her; the other, wealthy but older, who is tempted by her. But is Joan looking for a better life for her son, or is she just spinning her web yet again? For those fans of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain’s final novel is an unexpected delight.

A few years ago, I found a list somewhere (in pre-blogging days, alas, so I can’t share) with the top 100 noir films and novels. I joined Netflix and spent almost every afternoon immersing myself in noir. Two of my favorites were, of course, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice – Cain’s most famous novels. Yes, there are modern noir novels; in fact, my ESL students read a couple of contemporary noir novels, but it’s just not the same.

The Cocktail Waitress is the real deal (though it is more pulp than noir), and with Joan as our vulnerable but ever-so-slightly unreliable narrator, the story is off and running. Money, lust, dead bodies, and smoke-filled bars are aplenty, and even as I turned the last page, I wondered about this woman and just how far she’d go to protect her son – and maybe more importantly – herself. That’s the beauty of Cain’s craft.

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  • I am so deeply envious and covetous that you’re getting ARCs from Hard Case Crime. JEALOUS! I plan to buy this one for my wife — we’ve got a shelf of HCC and I want to own the whole collection. We both love Cain.

    • I’ve only gotten this one! But man, I was so excited. They put out some great titles.

  • I’ve always meant to read these noir novels much more regularly, including pulp. Will have to check this out. I watched the movie for Mildred Pierce, which I really enjoyed, and always wanted to read the book as well. Will have to make a note of this, thanks for reminding me to put this “on the list.”

    • The great thing about these books/films is that they typically follow pretty closely. So if you enjoy that style, you’d probably really like these. I recommend starting off with The Thin Man. It’s so so good. Or, of course, The Maltese Falcon. Or or or…. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I could go on and on.

  • Ana @ things mean a lot

    I would love to find that list! I’ve been watching Veronica Mars these past few weeks, which plays with a lot of noir tropes, and it’s making me want to explore the genre a bit more. I’ll probably start with one of Cain’s more well-known novels, but it’s nice to know this one’s out there.

    • I did not at all realize that about Veronica Mars. I’ve never seen that show. The genre is really fantastic, and if I find the list, I’ll shoot it to you.

  • heidenkind

    Interesting cover.

    The only pulp detective novels I’ve read have been The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, because of the movies, of course. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Glad it passed the Picky Girl test of a good book. I love me some old fashioned Pulp Noir ( why doesn’t spell check accept Noir?).
    Thanks, going to look for this book soon. BB

    • It did indeed pass the test. For some reason, I think you’d enjoy this one.

  • TinaB!

    And…this is why I love your blog, you pick titles Ive never heard off…:) Im trying to get into mysteries again, but haven’t found anything that really looks good.

    • TinaB!

      to many f’s on of….lol

    • Yea! Glad you like it. ๐Ÿ™‚ This one isn’t so much of a mystery, but it’s great. If you’re looking for mysteries, though, shoot me an email. That’s definitely my favorite genre, and I read all types. I’d love to hook you.