“The Cocktail Waitress” by James M. Cain

“The Cocktail Waitress” by James M. Cain (1977, 2013) – 254 pages


The attitudes in “The Cocktail Waitress” are so different from those of today that it almost seems like a story from a different century.  Well, it is from a different century, the depraved old twentieth century.  The time is the 1960s, and “The Cocktail Waitress” has that sleazy ambience of “Mad Men”, but even more sleazy.

The story begins with young Joan Medford burying her husband.  He abused her, and one night he came home drunk. She kicked him out of the house, him  wearing only his pajamas, and he crashed the car into a culvert.

Joan is a femme fatale, and she kind of knows it despite her innocent demeanor.  She has a kid, but she can’t keep him at her home, because she has to go out and earn a living all day.  Her ex-husband’s sister is all too willing to keep the child.

Joan takes a job as a cocktail waitress in a bar and restaurant, figuring the pay and tips would be good.  On the job she must wear a very short skirt, peasant blouse, and pantyhose.  Her fellow waitress Liz gives her some advice.

 “In the bar bare legs get kind of cold at one o’clock in the morning.  But if you’ll accept a suggestion from me, with what you’ve got to go inside the blouse, I’d leave the bra off.”

 “You sure about that?”

 “Well I do. It kind of helps with the tips.”

 Soon Liz becomes Joan’s best friend.  Liz makes extra money on the side off-hours from some of the male bar patrons.

Joan starts working at the bar serving drinks.  Two customers in particular pay her a lot of attention.  An old man, Mr. White, comes in and sits at the same table every afternoon, and Joan talks to him when she is not busy.  Soon Joan finds out that he is rich, and that his wife has died.  The other guy interested in Joan is young rake Tom Barclay   Tom would be “pawing me over whenever I came to the table, especially around the bottom which he patted a number of times.”  His bad behavior doesn’t stop Joan from becoming strangely attracted to him.

That is the setup.  If you want to know what develops, you can read it.

“The Cocktail Waitress” is the last novel that James M. Cain wrote.  The problem was not that he hadn’t finished it like many other writers’ last novels; the problem was that he had finished several versions with different endings when he died in 1977, so which to use?  Finally 36 years later, the novel gets published.  I believe “The Cocktail Waitress” is good enough to stand with Cain’s famous works “Double Indemnity”, “Mildred Pierce”, and “The Postman Always Rings Twice”.

Last night I watched “Mildred Pierce”, the old version with Joan Crawford.  Great movie.  “The Cocktail Waitress” is probably closest to “Mildred Pierce” of Cain’s works in that they are both about a woman who loses her husband and must fend for herself in the work world, whether by opening a chain of Mildred’s restaurants or by serving drinks in a bar.  Trouble ensues.

It stands to reason.  Women are people too and thus fully capable of planning and committing murder.

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