This month’s Hard Case Crime was a real winner. The kind of book I wish they could find and/or publish more often.
Of course, unpublished works from crime masters aren’t exactly lying around waiting. Charles Ardai and co. lucked out when some mutual connects hooked them up with the last James Cain manuscript, one that had never seen the light of day.
Cain is often considered part of the Hardboiled Trinity, along with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Yet he didn’t write the kind of detective/crime novels those two did. Cain’s modus operandi was the domestic thriller, similar to Patricia Highsmith but more hardboiled, less psychological/horror.
To classify this would almost be giving the game away because most of it reads like Cain wrote a hornier revision of his classic domestic tale Mildred Pierce. A woman who loses her husband has to navigate patriarchal bounds for the good of her child. In this particular instance, she has to do it at a cocktail lounge, basically a 1950s gentleman’s version of Hooters. Yeah these rich white Masters of the Universe wouldn’t stoop so low to go to see women strip but watching them cart around cocktails in dresses that are one step above lingerie is societally acceptable.
Yet as the book reaches its conclusion, it becomes something else. I don’t usually like it when writers yank the rug out at the end to make you question what you’re reading. Cain doesn’t do that but in an ever-so-subtle manner, he asks the reader who we really think Joan is. Plucky protagonist? Or something else? Something sinister? And is it sinister given who she is interacting with?
There’s a lot of food for thought here, making this one of Cain’s best and probably one of the best HCC books I’ve ever read.