Thursday, 21 February 2013


The reasons why James M. Cain was more successful than Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett during their lifetimes, and the reasons why he is the least read of the three today are connected, and they have to do with morality. This was a point reinforced for me by The Cocktail Waitress, Cain's lost last novel, written in 1975 when he was 83, and tracked down and then edited together from various versions by Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime.

Cain's writing sold more to his contemporary audience partly because it escaped the confines of the genre ghetto of 'mystery' –his stories usually have crime within them (though the killing of Monte Beragon in Mildred Pierce, for example, is something added by the movies), but not detective heroes, so they could play to the somewhat higher-brow audience who looked down on the pulp magazines that spawned Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. More important, though, was the world of steamy, obsessive, noirish sex which Cain's characters inhabited. He wrote material that the highbrow critics hated, but which the middle brow audiences ate up, a form of sexual slumming which inspired a slew of followers, of whom Erskine Caldwell may be the most notable. And though today he's remembered for the films his novels inspired, it's worth noting that it took Hollywood 12 years to work up the gumption to produce a diluted version of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Of course, what was hot stuff to my parents' generation, and when I was a kid in the Fifties, is pretty tame nowadays. Which is one of the reasons Cain fell somewhat to the wayside. Another was that, as his late-blooming career went on, his work dealt more and more with his obsessions, and his stories became less and less compulsive.

But what made his stories compulsive is also what made them acceptable in the Thirties and Forties, and what makes them less compelling today. They are underpinned by a powerful sense of morality, a morality which insists that sin, inevitably, be punished, while simultaneously portraying the intoxicating delights it offers before the punishment comes due. Cain's stories are about people caught up by forces they cannot control, forces which will inevitably destroy them. It is a world created by an Old Testament God, and if that makes the original Cain, or Job, or David, the first noir protagonist, so be it. It's not like this is a secret, among Cain's later novels are titles like Sinful Woman and The Root Of His Evil. His God may well have departed the scene; not for nothing did Albert Camus call Cain 'America's greatest writer', but that sense of retribution is never far away, and often his characters see it coming.

Hammett's protagonists resonate with modern audiences because they are almost anti-heroes; they know the world has its sins, that people are corrupted, and they function within that world, partaking of it but never succumbing to it, never letting it take control of them, living by their own code of what demands punishment. Chandler's Marlowe also knows the world is corrupt, but he copes with it like an idealist who's become, as idealists do, a cynic. He constructs a facade of not caring, defined by cracking wise, to protect him from the corruption. What makes Elliott Gould's Marlowe so accurate in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, the reason by it's generally either loved or hated by Chander fans, is the understanding of this character, which Leigh Brackett and Altman nail perfectly. Their Marlowe is the most accurate depiction of what's REALLY going on underneath the facade, as opposed to the what the readers (and perhaps author) really thinks is going on, since Robert Aldrich and Buzz Bezzerides' deconstruction of Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly.

In this sense, The Cocktail Waitress is a veritable cocktail of Cain's Old Testament themes, a small masterpiece of self-deconstruction. Joan Medford, the eponymous waitress, narrates the tale, and when it opens her abusive husband has just died in a drunken car crash, which at least one cop still suspects her of somehow having caused. Her son is in the care of her in-laws, and her sister-in-law Ethel, who can't have children of her own, desperately wants to keep him. Joan is simply trying to make ends meet, but needs to prove she can support herself and her son, so she takes a job as a cocktail waitress at the Garden of Roses. She catches the eye of an older millionaire, Earl K. White III, and of a younger man with big plans, Tom Barclay, who says he drove her home from her husband's funeral, and claims she blew him a kiss when he left.

The set-up is brilliant, and you can see where it's going. Joan is obsessive about making a success, and enough money to get back her son. Her need becomes overwhelming. Earl quickly becomes obsessed with Joan, and offers to marry her, but with a catch—he has a heart condition, and has been told by his doctors that he could never stand the strain of sex. His passion could literally kill him. Joan quickly becomes obsessed with Tom—even though on their first 'date' he takes her to a topless bar cum whorehouse. But her passion is just as dangerous to her need as Earl's is to him. It's like a condensed version of Cain's classic characters and themes rolled into one: Postman crossed with Mildred Pierce crossed with Double Indemnity (you wonder if the character is called Joan in reference to Crawford) with a bit of Cain himself thrown in: he was suffering from angina as he wrote the book, and was 83, (I wondered reading the strip club scene if he'd seen The Graduate and been inspired). Tom is Walter Neff crossed with Beragon, Earl is partly Nick, partly Mr Dietrichson. But the real question is who Joan is, and that's where the beauty of this novel lies.

As you might expect, things get complicated, and then go wrong, and eventually one accident is followed by another death, and coincidence begins to mount. There's a trial scene, and then a vicious twist at the end which clever readers will have seen coming, but which, in terms of Old Testament justice, is cruel and unusual, and which makes clear what Cain has been doing all along: setting us, the readers, up for a fall, just as he did so brilliantly in Postman. But here, he's done it with the female first-person narration (remember, Mildred Pierce is told in third person; Postman in the first by Frank Chambers). Cain's sense of Joan's voice, which seems believable at first, now is revealed to be downright compelling: we have watched the story through her eyes, and we are forced to re-evaluate the entire story, and our own preconceptions and sympathies, as a result. Although we have the sense of impending doom, Joan never shares it, and this creates a wonderful tension, because we, as readers, accept her voice. 

The Cocktail Waitress is not a 'great' novel, and  it will carry less impact to a modern audience unfamiliar with Cain; in fact, judging by some of the reviews it appears that is the case. But its publication at this time makes it a perfect coda to Cain's career; he is remembered now mostly for the movies he inspired. I'd love to see it turned into a film; after all even Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslett was a success (Guy Pearce's Beragon stole that show--though the HBO adaptation did return Lucy Gessler, as Mildred's friend, to a larger role, giving Melissa Leo a chance to shine; there is an equivalent character in The Cocktail Waitress too). The question would be whether you use the late Fifties/early Sixties period (the end of the era of morality: pre-Beatles and the rest) or go contemporary, because we are currently mired in an age that combines both licentiousness and prudery in ways that make the Roaring Twenties/Depression Thirties seem balanced. With the popularity of Mad Men, and copies of it like The Hour, and the success of Mildred Pierce, period might work better; this I think could be the breakthrough role for Jessica Chastain.

There has been huge re-evaluation of Cain in recent years. Postman was picked for the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list; Double Indemnity is one of the AFI's 100 best American films. This novel is a moving reminder of what made Cain so compelling in his time, and what makes him so today. It may not be the place to begin reading him, but once you've started to move beyond the classics, to the more obsessive works (The Butterfly, Galatea, Serenade and Past All Dishonor, for example), it's a good place to see clearly what he's up to, and what he's capable of doing with his writing.

The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain
Hard Case Crime/Titan Books £16.99 ISBN 9781781160329

This essay will also appear at Crime Time (


Jay Gertzman said...

Excellent article. I have some ideas about why Chandler thought Cain trashy, but I really do not know, outside of understanding that Chandler could use pulp themes himself, as in _The Little Sister_, but his point of view was of "knightly" Marlow, not a cultural outcast like Walter Neff or Frank Chambers.. I love Cain, b/c his characters get what they want, but it destroyed them.

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