*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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