Take the L (Out of Lover)

I love James M. Cain.

I think the first book of his I read was Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, which is way overdue for a reread. I also read The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce back in my twenties, and in recent years read Serenade and The Butterfly. I love Cain’s work, and would read more of it, but much of it is now out of print (other than the big name novels) and hard–even ridiculously expensive–to find from second hand sellers. So, I was very excited to find out that Hard Case Crime had printed an unpublished Cain manuscript–his last novel–and finally sat down to read it this weekend.


I first met Tom Barclay at my husband’s funeral, as he recalled to me later, though he made so little impression on me at the time that I had no recollection of ever having seen him before. Mr. Garrick, the undertaker, was in the habit of calling Student Aid, at the university, for boys to help him out, but one of those chosen that day, a junior named Dan Lacey, couldn’t come for some reason, and his father asked Tomas a favor to go in his place. Tom, though he’d graduated the year before, did the honors with me, calling for me and bringing me home in a big shiny limousine. But he rode up front with the driver, so we barely exchanged five words, and I didn’t even see what he looked like. Later, he admitted he saw what I looked like–not my face, as I was wearing a veil, but my “beautiful legs,” as he called them. If I paid no attention to him, I had other things on my mind: the shock of what had happened to Ron, the tension of facing police, and the sudden, unexpected glimpse of my sister-in-law’s scheme to steal my little boy. Ethel is Ron’s sister, and I know quite well it’s tragic that as a result of surgery she can never have a child of her own. I hope I allow for that. Still and all, it was a jolt to realize that she meant to keep my Tad. I knew she loved him, of course, when I went along with her suggestion, as we might call it, that she take him until I could ‘readjust’ and get back on my feet. But that she might love him too much, that she might want him permanently, was something I hadn’t even dreamed of.

And so begins Cain’s last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, which is quite an enjoyable read. In that first paragraph, in his terse style, he introduces not only his main character–Joan Medford, the only time Cain has ever told a story from a woman’s first person point of view–and Tom Barclay, who will be the means to her ultimate destruction. Because Cain’s novels are always about doomed people (so pointing this out doesn’t spoil the book), and how they self-destruct by making the bad choices that ultimately lead them to their ruin.

Joan, like Mildred in Mildred Pierce (one of the other Cain novels told from the point of view of a woman; although it’s third person) is dedicated to her child and completely untethered after her abusive husband’s death in a drunk driving accident. His malicious sister, Ethel–she who cannot have a child and therefore is making a play for Joan’s–keeps hinting to the police that Joan had a hand in the accident, which runs her afoul of the police from the very start. A kind policeman recommends to the young woman a job at a place called Garden of Roses–she is behind on the mortgage; the gas, phone and power have all been turned off–where she becomes a cocktail waitress and, like Mildred, now shed of a worthless husband, begins clawing her way out of the hole the husband has left her in. Joan is beautiful, sexy, and smart–but is she a reliable narrator?

And the big surprise in the book–how Joan is ultimately going to be ruined–comes near the end, and requires an understanding of American history.

Quite chilling.

I’d love to see this filmed, actually. It’s a great, meaty role for a young actress, someone like Jessica Chastain, perhaps.

I’ve now started reading Dan Chaon’s Ill Will, which is also quite exceptional.

And now, back to the spice mines.


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