Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: The Cocktail Waitress ~ by James M. Cain


Review by Shellie for: The Cocktail Waitress ~ by James M. Cain

A page-turning posthumous noire novel, by crime fiction master James M. Cain. Told from the first person perspective of the gorgeous Joan Medford – who, the reader is left to decide, is either a victim or a murderer.

About:   Joan Medford is a “knock out” - leggy, curvy and smart too; some of the characteristics of a quintessential femme-fatale. However, looks and brains have not stopped her from making mistakes, like her accidental pregnancy and subsequent marriage to a brutal drinker. Her story begins after the “accidental” death of her inebriated husband, when she winds up at a local bar as a cocktail waitress – to help her pay her bills.

Although socially unacceptable for “nice women”  to work in bars (this is the 1950’s), she is more than grateful for her new job serving alcohol in the required uniform of velveteen shorts and a peasant blouse. She knows that she can now financially care for her toddler and turn on the electricity, which was cut off for non-payment. It's even better when she starts receiving unusually large tips from a very wealthy older businessman who becomes smitten with her.

But to Joan’s chagrin, she has also caught the eye of a poor, booze-loving, but handsome rake that she finds all too alluring. Still, Joan is determined to do the best for her little boy and chooses to marry the richer older man. She is relieved that the marriage will not be consummated, since her husband-to-be has a delicate heart which will not withstand the exertion of marital relations.

Events become intriguingly complicated around this warped love triangle as the men in Joan’s life die, or are murdered. As she tells her story in an uncompleted and direct way, the reader gets to decide – is Joan an unreliable narrator or a victim?

Thoughts:  It’s kind of neat that this novel has been published 35 years after the author’s death. It’s interesting to think about the effort that the editors have had to put into piecing it together, attempting to imagine what the author would have done had he been alive to help the process. Interestingly, there is a 11 page afterword describing how some of this was done, by editor Charles Ardai. Regardless, I do have to say the results are wonderful.

The Cocktail Waitress is my first noire crime fiction. I have learned that noir is told from the perspective of one of the victims, suspects, or perpetrators. Which is different from a detective novel, told from the perspective of a crime fighter. I think that is one reason why I enjoyed the novel so much. It was written as if Joan was attempting to explain her story to the reader and judge. It’s written with her old fashioned voice, appropriate to the character during the time, and in my opinion creating a page-turning pleasure to read. I don’t have any other books by Cain to compare this with, but if it’s any gage of what to expect from his other books, I am going to have a blast attempting to read his entire collection.

Additionally, I enjoyed the book for other reasons. My favorite characters are strong women, and the darker the better. So Joan could be a perfect fit, depending on your opinion of her after finishing the book. I liked the ambiguity of not knowing whether Joan was an unreliable narrator.  So the book is one of my favorites for 2012 at 4.5 stars. Highly recommended for crime fiction lovers, and anyone who enjoys strong female leads.

Content advisory: This book has adult themes, nudity, sexual references and scenes, violence, as well as strong language (although I do not recall any cursing) so some readers should be advised.

272 pages; Hard Case Crime (September 18, 2012)

For an excellent detailed bio of the author (including a listing with dates for the books he published):   James M. Cain (1892-1977) is considered one of the preeminent "hard-boiled" crime writers of the 1930s and 1940s…. Read more at

Also for a description of noir fiction:


DCMetroreader said...

One of my all time favorite movies is The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (the 1940's version). I didn't realize there was a recent post-humus book by him. It sounds like another exciting story!

Unknown said...

Kim -
I really didn't understand what I was getting when I accepted this book for review, and who the author was. Boy am I glad since it was such a great read.

I just downloaded a couple of his other books like The Postman from the library in audio form. Then I will try them out in movie form.

Should be fun!

Carole said...

Enjoyed your review, Shellie. Thanks for linking this in to Books You Loved. Cheers

Elizabeth said...

I learned something...thanks. I never knew what noir is...interesting.

Stopping by from Carole's November Books I Loved. I am in that list as #2.

Silver's Reviews

Unknown said...

Carole -
I loved it, but not everyone will....

Thank you for taking the time to comment.

Unknown said...

Elizabeth -
Me either.

Interesting though, researching the genre, sub genre. It's fun to learn something new.

I just commented on your review.

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