My general rule of thumb is that “lost” novels should stay that way, but I’m glad I made an exception for the final novel of James M. Cain, published many years after the author’s death. Like the best of Cain’s novels it features people who find themselves in desperate circumstances. Cain’s characters are trapped by lust or greed and willing to go beyond the bounds of traditional morality to satisfy their desires.
The Cocktail Waitress is narrated by Joan Medford, the title character. Left impoverished by the death of her drunkard husband and badgered by an overeager police detective who thinks she was responsible for his demise, Joan is forced to take a job slinging drinks at a disreputable joint in town. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to earn enough money to provide for her son, so when a big tipper starts showing interest in being more than a customer, Joan is willing to overlook her total lack of attraction for the man. She’s also willing to tell a younger, sexier suitor to go pound sand even though every time he comes around she finds it harder and harder to resist his charms.
Joan’s phony marriage and the resulting love triangle inevitably leads to tragedy, but Cain’s inventive and twisted mind propels the reader toward a dark, unsettling conclusion. Though the text as presented shows some signs of being an unfinished version, with a key subplot dropped halfway through the story, the book as is only adds to Cain’s legacy.