The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If this book actually were a cocktail you’d probably find it was pretty smooth going down, but think that it’s not all that strong while drinking. Then you’d be surprised by the twist you found at the bottom of the glass, and when you tried to stand up you’d fall over and realize that you were completely shitfaced after all.
Joan Medford is burying her husband, but since he was an abusive drunk she isn’t exactly upset that he crashed and burned in a drunk driving accident. However, he’s left her stone broke, and his sister is using Joan’s inability to provide for her small son Tad as an excuse to have the kid stay with her as the first step towards claiming custody of him. Desperate for cash Joan takes a gig as a scantily clad cocktail waitress in a lounge where her looks draw the attention of plenty of male customers including the rich but sickly Earl K. White who starts dropping huge tips on her. Joan quickly sees an opportunity to help her get her son back if she can make White fall for her, but she’s torn between working towards that goal and her attraction to a handsome rogue named Tom Barclay. She’s also got a problem with a pesky policeman who thinks that she was somehow responsible for his husband’s death.
This is one of those Hard Case Crime offerings where they’ve dug up some unpublished treasure, and this time it’s from noir master James Cain. Cain wrote and rewrote multiple versions of the novel until his death, and it’s a helluva interesting and tricky read. You can see element of his best known books like Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce, but what’s interesting here is how he’s almost subverting his previous work by heading down similar paths yet still making The Cocktail Waitress something different.
It’s a subtle thing, and a good portion of the book just seems to be this hard luck woman struggling to overcome her circumstances and people’s perceptions of her. The police and her husband’s family think she might be a killer. Many people assume that she’s willing to flirt and flash some cleavage for tips, and maybe even do more than that. When she gets into the relationship with White it seems like a classic gold digger scenario. And yet the first person narration that Joan gives us make it seem like she’s just a decent practical woman trying to do her best to improve her situation enough to make sure she gets her son back.
The great thing about the writing here is that by the end you’re still sympathizing with Joan until the point where you look back and realize that there’s a whole lot of fishy stuff in her story. Is she an unreliable narrator who has been feeding the reader a line the entire time? Are we just as big of suckers as the rubes that Joan works for tips? Or is it really just a string of bad luck that is making Joan look bad, and she is just trying to set the record straight as she claims?
Those are the kind of questions you’ll find yourself asking, and it’s the way that Cain made Joan come alive as a character so that you’re not entire sure that makes this a fresh approach to a classic noir story.
View all my reviews