James M. Cain is one of the gods of pulp mysteries, standing alongside Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. His The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are classics. So, when a never-before published manuscript (hinted at during late in life interviews and biographies) surfaces, it’s a big thing. And I guess, for that reason alone, The Cocktail Waitress is worth the read.
However (and I may be the only one who says this), if you’re looking for a pulp mystery on the level of Cain’s classics, this book isn’t it. Actually, Michael Connelly, in his NY Times Book Review, I think says the same thing.
Joan Medford kicks her drunk husband out of the house one night and he crashes a borrowed car on a culvert, leaving her a penniless widow, hated by her sister-in-law and unable to look after her three year old son, Tad. The police are suspicious, thinking she might have helped the process. Mentioning to one of the investigating police officers that she desperately needs a job, he suggests the local bar/restaurant, The Garden of Roses. On his recommendation she gets the job as a cocktail waitress and she meets the old, but well-to-do, Earl K. White III, who immediately falls in love with her. She also meets, the young and handsome Tom, with whom there’s a tremendous physical attraction.
What does Joan do? White may be the answer to her financial worries and the means to get Tad back from her sister-in-law (who has been caring for him since Joan doesn’t have the means). But Tom, certainly, will meet her physical needs.
Older man–>younger woman—>younger man is a typical James M. Cain plot, done much better in The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’m not saying there aren’t some great passages and surprises along the way, including the ending (which, while, in my opinion sort of follows, is, again in my opinion, uncalled for). But…
I’ve been inundating myself in mystery stories from The Black Mask and I’ll be honest. There are better stories than The Cocktail Waitress, but again, any pulp/James M. Cain fan will be compelled to read The Cocktail Waitress. It won’t be the death of you, but it certainly won’t keep you riveted.