James M. Cain and "The Cocktail Waitress"

James M. Cain wrote stories of greed and lust and passion, and he did it better than anybody. In his stories men and women connect as if by high-tension wires.

WASHINGTON, October 25, 2012 – “They threw me off of the hay truck about noon.” 

One of the great opening sentences in any genre of American literature pulls the reader into the vortex of a novel with one of literature’s great titles.

When I met author James M. Cain, I was already enamored of  his work. I had read and relished the above referenced, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” more than once and had also seen the motion picture starring John Garfield and Lana Turner. Also, I had read and seen both “Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Pierce.” So call me a fan, if you will. 

James M. Cain wrote “noir” before the term “film noir” was even coined. Although he died in 1977, at 85, he has a new book out. Hard Case Crime just released The Cocktail Waitress. In keeping with Cain’s work, however, it may have escaped.

The cover of “Waitress” recaptures the girlie-art of the old paperback detective genre. It drops the reader into a perfect Cain setting: man sitting at a table, cigarette between his fingers, his hand embracing a martini (two olives), a pack of Lucky Strikes tossed beside an ashtray. It’s the best seat in the bar for watching the lovely waitress pass by in her uniform: short skirt, low front, no back, while she balances a tray of drinks. She is looking over her bare shoulder with that come thither stare. I say “thither” because Cain’s women are always giving out that mixed message, “come close-go away.” More about her in a moment.

Cain wrote stories of greed and lust and passion, and he did it better than anybody. In his stories men and women connect as if by high-tension wires. While reading Cain, one can occasionally wonder if maybe this is what Ernest Hemingway was really striving for. Famous detective writer Raymond Chandler hated Cain, and I’ve got to think that jealousy underlined his view. 

Born in Annapolis, Maryland, after college Cain went to work at The Baltimore Sun where he met his mentor, H. L. Menken, before traveling to California and making the Hollywood scene. While there, he met and married former opera singer Florence McBeth Whitwell. The couple moved back to Cain’s beloved Maryland in 1948, taking up residence in exotic Hyattsville.

When I visited with Cain, in 1966, it was shortly after the death of his wife. You could take this as a “Spoiler Alert,” because I found him to be a nice guy. Not at all self-important or arrogant. I’ll share a little of our Q&A later. 

One thing Cain said (besides “Don’t call me Mr.”) was that you don’t have to be “hard-boiled” to write “hard-boiled” stories. A writer doesn’t have to dive into a cauldron of bubbling water in hopes of coming out hard-boiled. 

“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called,” he said. “I merely try to write as the character would write.” 

To that I would add: as the character would write, speak and think. Some of Cain’s characters aren’t literate enough to write. Much of the action takes place inside their cranial cavities, usually late at night when the gauge on the liquor bottle is approaching Empty.  Cain’s characters do talk, but often in a convoluted inverse of poetry, which takes on a poetry sound all its own.

So nice was Cain during our chat that he showed no impatience at my questions, which he must have heard hundreds of times over the 20 years between the1946 movie of “Postman” and our conversation. “How did you come up with that fantastic title?” I asked. A lesser man might have sent my young hide packing. 

Instead, he explained. It was a lovely afternoon in California. He was anxiously waiting for an envelope regarding his manuscript about a guy who gets thrown off a hay truck one noon day.   

While waiting for the mail, Cain led his best friend, popular screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, to the backyard.   

“Don’t worry, I’ll hear him,” Cain assured Lawrence. “You see, the postman always rings twice.” 

It may have hung there a moment before Lawrence shouted, “That’s it! The new title you’ve been looking for. And it’s a metaphor for what happens at the end of the story.” Alfred Knopf publisher had thought Cain’s working title, “Bar-B-Q,” was as flat as a diner pancake. This new title had a catchy, ahem, “ring” to it. 

The postman came. Rang twice. And Cain quickly signed the enclosed document, scribbling a note about the title change. 

Cain’s novels were tough and gritty. So much so that any guy with a pen and an erector set might think he could knock out a novel like “Postman” in his spare time. It’s only about 165 pages. A writer worth his salty margarita could write that many pages while waiting for a phone call.

Other noted books followed: “Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Piece.” These two, in fact, became successful motion pictures before “Postman” even hit the silver screen.

“The problem,” explained “Postman” director, Tay (Taylor) Garnett, “was getting that much sex past the censors.” 

I had to ask Cain: What did you think of Hollywood changing “Indemnity” and having the protagonist, played in the movie by Fred McMurray, narrate the story into a Dictaphone while bleeding from a gunshot wound?

His answer was not that of  the typical writer. “I liked it,” he said; “in fact, I wish I had thought of it. I’d have used it.” 

“The Cocktail Waitress” was an incomplete manuscript which might have died when Cain himself did after a heart attack in University Park, Maryland. But from the possession of an agent, where it had been sitting for years, it found its way to the desk of writer-editor Charles Ardai. Mr. Ardai took up the project, himself completing the manuscript, cutting and pasting and patching, while staying true to the Cain style. The result is a rather seamless piece of crime fiction.

Its central character is a woman named Joan Medford. And it is from her viewpoint that the story unfolds, or unravels. This is Cain’s first story written from the femme fatale’s perspective. It’s told in flashback like many noir movies. But this time Cain adapts that Hollywood idea from “Double Indemnity.” He has the woman telling her story into a reel-to-reel tape recorder.    

Naturally, she paints herself in a flattering light, as anyone might while sitting in a whirlpool of trouble and being looked at suspiciously concerning a few murder cases. Like the males in the story, the male readers may find themselves being drawn into that pool, while at the same time trying to keep a wary eye out for a floating inner tube to grab onto.

A widow through no fault of her own, young Mrs. Medford insists, she decries her need to become a cocktail waitress. But she needs money to support her boy who is currently in the grasp of his aunt. She especially detests the skimpy costumes management requires “the girls” to wear. Of the newspaper stories about her, she complains, “They got one photo somehow of me in my uniform from the Garden….and they ran it over and over, with black bars to cover up what they deemed indecent. Of course, this made it appear more

indecent than it actually was….[and] the headline writers took to calling me ‘the Cocktail Waitress,’…with capital letters.” 

“The girls” is an acceptable term of the times, in that this crime novel takes place in the early late 50s-early60s, in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C.

I can hear some crime story aficionados crying out, “Hey, that’s George Pelecanos territory! He writes stories of the Washington area.” True enough. In fact, I reviewed his recent book, What It Was. That story was set in 1972, earlier than others of his 18 books..     

Joan Medford seemed to casually accept the outstanding nature of her physical assets with a shrug of her shoulders. She notices men noticing, and she uses their attention to distinct advantage. Yet, all the while, she manages to project a certain beguiling innocence. 

Although many of the Hyattsville locations and scenery of that era are familiar to me, I couldn’t get a read on where this particular roman a clef bar-restaurant, called the Rose Garden in the story, might have been located. 

If I had to offer a criticism of “The Cocktail Waitress,” and as a reviewer I should, it would be that it didn’t provide enough timeline. The only clue that the events take place in the early 1960s is one reference to a trio of a currently running television shows. The story could have benefited from the mention of specific hit songs playing on the bar’s juke box or blasting from a car’s speakers; again, much as Pelecanos incorporates in his stories, which helps provide a veritable soundtrack to the action. 

I dislike book reviews which give away large chunks of the plot, so I will spare you reading one here. I’ll simply say that “The Cocktail Waitress” is a good read, and for the uninitiated it can serve as an introduction to the work of James Mallahan Cain.

When I finished “Waitress,” I strolled to my bookcase and pulled off my collected copies of Cain: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” in its 1934 hardback first-edition by G and D publishers and that same year’s paperback version by Pocket Books. I also took down my “Double Indemnity,” the 1944 WWII Armed Services paperback Edition.    

Believe me, after “The Cocktail Waitress,” you’ll find yourself raising an index finger and calling, “I’ll have another James M. Cain, please, straight up.” 

***

Vance Garnett writes a weekly column for The Washington Times Communities, titled, “As I See-Saw It.” He has been published in such major newspapers and magazine as Reader’s Digest, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.


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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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