The Cocktail Waitress – James M. Cain

5 out of 5

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Something I’ve said before that bears repeating: you don’t know a truly great book until you’re reading one. I mean that for each time you experience that – that you’ll go through a pile of books (we’re all eager readers, right?), and feel like several are quality, but then you get to a great one and it’s like a knock on the head, sudden dawning realization as to what it actually means to read something so perfect.

Let’s say you don’t know who James M. Cain is, or haven’t read something by him before. Or more specifically to me, let’s say I know who he is… but haven’t read anything by him before. Now, I feel I try to minimize my expectations as much as possible when reading classic authors, and because the Hard Case Crime imprint has exposed me to many for my first time, I’ve had practice at that, so that this was Cain’s long lost final novel (found and lovingly pieced together by main HCC man Charles Ardai) didn’t mean much to me, nor was I holding the text to any particular standard. But at 100 pages in, when I realized I was fully immersed in a story by this hardboiled luminary in which, arguably, nothing has yet happened – something that could be said of its first 200 pages, even! – I knew I was reading a great book, and understood immediately how Cain made his reputation.

Of course, “nothing happens” is relative; things surely do happen: Joan has just lost her husband to a driving-while-intoxicated crash, and is struggling to make ends meet and get her son back from her sister-in-law’s possessive clutches; securing a job at a local bar / restaurant, Joan starts flirtations with an older sugar daddy type, as well as a younger, aggressive suitor, while figuring – scheming? – how to set herself up in a position in which no court could deny her guardianship of her boy. But lesser authors would stuff this setup with much more femme fatale stuff, and probably push more on the detectives who are investigating Joan’s husband’s death as suspicious, dial up the sex, add some clear, murder-planning overtones, make the sugar daddy more lecherous and the younger suitor more appealing, and so on, and so on… But Cain tells us all of this from Joan’s perspective, and tells it “true” to her character. This is her point of view, a woman fighting for her son, maybe just hoping for a relationship that’s built on something true. We get noir and sex and cops and clues, it just happens naturally within Joan’s narrative. It’s so damn masterful: that we believe her, how organic is her telling, while Chekov’s guns are dropped here and there in the story, without hiding it. And even once some bodies do start dropping, and we can look back at those guns we’d already known were there, it’s still a hell of a shock. Believe the hype about the twists mentioned on the cover, and I was in awe – even after having come around to knowing I was reading greatness – at how Cain ended up justifying every little detail in the book.

There’s further awe after reading Ardai’s afterword, in which he outlines the task he gave himself of piecing this book together, from many, many disparate drafts. His story is great in itself, and helps to underline the travails authors may go through on the way to delivering such fantastic books to us, but also the role of great editors as well: Ardai speaks to taking this kind of personal approach to all books on the imprint, which underlines why I felt in love with it – I do think you can sense that attention, whether you like the individual entries or not.