Tag Archives: James Cain

Noir Crime Fiction | “The Cocktail Waitress” by James M. Cain

Noir Crime Fiction The Cocktail Waitress James M Cain

My Copy

James Cain is a member of the ‘big 3’ of crime fiction (alongside Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), and when I heard that this previously unpublished piece was being released I was thrilled beyond reason. One of the first noir crime fiction novels that I ever loved was The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Cocktail Waitress doesn’t fail in any aspect; especially in creating a compelling narrative fraught with desire and suspense. Reading a novel such as this, one that is unearthed from a forgotten past, is much like opening a time-capsule. We’ve found a lost work from a master, lets give it the respect it deserves.

The Cocktail Waitress begins casket-side, at the funeral of Joan Medford’s late alcoholic husband. All eyes are fixed upon her grief, searching for some quiver in her facade, for some sign that would betray her mourning as counterfeit. Joan isn’t sorry he’s dead, but she’s swallowing hard realities about her provider being gone. Her sister-in-law wants to take her son, the bank wants to foreclose on her house, and she’s caught in a game of high stakes give-and-take with every man she meets. Her story is that of a femme fatale stripped of glamour– a white-knuckled grasping for a better life. Joan painfully explores her boundaries as she sacrifices everything for her son’s future.

“I’m trying to tell it as it was, not leaving anything out that matters, or putting anything in that isn’t true. So, I was two-faced and now I admit it. But, if you’re a woman, how about you, what would you have done? If you had exactly been in my shoes, with this opportunity offered you and that little boy to think of, I think you’d have done what I did.”

James Cain has delivered beautiful vintage noir from beyond the grave; the final genuine article of a bygone era.

1) The Seedy Underworld

The Cocktail Waitress delivers in expected ways: the settings ripped straight from the pulps– dimly lit lounges, skin-clubs of ill repute, and clamshell driveways wrapping luxurious estates.

“There are livings that don’t require you to dress like…a tramp.”
“Find me one that’ll have me and I’ll apply. In the meantime, I’m earning good money and all I’m doing for it is bringing people drinks and a bit of food, and a smile to go with them.”
“Might as well have nothing on but that smile.”

2) The Anti-Hero

Joan Medford is a fantastic narrator. She has a sincerity that is endearing and a candor that grounds the entire novel in poignant reality. Relatively minor daily acts are spellbinding in her voice, because her desperation lends them unmistakable gravitas. Only when I began to doubt her reliability did the full impact of her character resonate– unsettling implications abound when the trustworthiness of the narrator is called into question.

3) The Femme Fatale

Is Joan a femme fatale? I suppose it’s left to the reader to decide. As she recites her story, promising to hold nothing back, explaining her desire to set the record straight once and for all, you cannot help but be taken in. This desperate woman who has experienced such hardship plays with your sympathies– You want to trust her. You pull for her throughout the novel because she’s the hero right?

“Always the same charge, the one Ethel flung at me of being a femme fatale who knew ways of killing a husband so slick they couldn’t be proved.”

4) Misogyny

Wonderful and horrifying examples of misogyny abound in the novel– Joan understands the roles she must play in the male dominated world she inhabits. She adopts compromising and frequently fraudulent characteristics in order to appease powerful men in her life, ultimately to profit from them. Joan dances to their tune until she can change the song.

5) Redemption

Joan reveals very early on that the entire purpose of her story is the hope that it will redeem her good name. Scandal mounts from the first page to the last, ever more incriminating– each detail more harrying than the last. As a reader, we’re left with a mouthful of uncomfortable redemption; difficult to swallow.

Noir Crime Fiction James M Cain

James M. Cain

6) Eroticism

Eroticism can quickly feel forced in the clumsy grip of a novice author– especially when it’s a male author attempting to define a female character’s sexuality. But James Cain seems to dodge these potential pitfalls, delivering a character that feels both authentic and sexually empowered. I never felt that Joan was pandering to the male readers of her story– I felt that she was allowing us a private peek into her most guarded secrets. Her candor delivered a level of eroticism not found in enough of the noir genre.

“Not just being good looking and young but having a presence to him, a scent almost, that took something loose inside a woman and coiled it up tight.”

7) Loss of Innocence

As Joan’s situation becomes increasingly dire, and as she realizes the desperate sacrifices she must make, this theme of lost innocence becomes more pronounced. Mrs. Medford’s innocence doesn’t vanish all at once, its evaporated by the heat of tribulation.

8 ) Smoke

Solace in smoke. Sometimes the only relief may be found in indulgence. The Cocktail Waitress is a smoke full lounge, burping smoke as the front door bleeds patrons out into the night.

“You learn, often the hard way, that satisfying a craving is no guarantee you end up satisfied in the long run.”

9) Emasculation

Possibly the most pronounced theme of emasculation I have read in months, The Cocktail Waitress features a main character named Ernest White III. Ernest is a rich older fellow who has developed powerful feelings for Joan. We learn that he has angina, a rare heart condition that makes any form of strenuous activity potentially deadly. Particularly, we learn that if he were to have sex he would die. Mr. White is completely emasculated by his condition– effectively neutered by his inability to perform as a normal man. 

I was enchanted by The Cocktail Waitress. I felt unusually compelled to read, and I devoured page after page of Joan’s wounded narration. Mr. Cain proves yet again that he deserves every distinction he has earned in the genre over the last 60 years. Get your own copy here.

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Noir Quotes | James M. Cain

Noir Quotes James M Cain

James M. Cain in 1970 (via weblogs.baltimoresun.com)

“And my belly began to tell me how deep my fear was. And then at last I began to realize how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true.”

-James M. Cain, The Cocktail Waitress


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Noir Crime Fiction: “The Postman Always Rings Twice”

Noir Crime Fiction The Postman Always Rings Twice

a wilting flowers, wilting lovers noir crime fiction

“A good, swift, violent story.” -Dashiell Hammett

I just finished the noir crime fiction novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and I am very pleased with Mr. Cain’s gritty tale. The stark honesty of the narration, the erotic passion between the main characters, and the unabashed violence throughout the novel was very consistent with our noir definition so far, but in many ways it approached these noir elements from entirely new angles. The anti-hero is a grifter named Frank Chambers, his femme fatale is a married woman named Cora Papidakis, and their victim is her Greek husband Nick. One of the first variances from our typical noir definition formula came as it pertains to “illusions of order” and “intellectual control.” We have grown used to the classic detective novel where the anti-hero attempts to redeem himself or others by finding and understanding all of the clues in a particular crime. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, we follow a man and woman who are attempting to redeem themselves from their crime by destroying and thwarting all of the possible clues that would point to their guilt. This behavior is the opposite of our noir definition, but it serves the same purpose if you follow this line of thinking. Another variance pertains to setting; Ths beautiful California, and the seedy underworld never makes an appearance. I had the feeling as I read that the backdrop was luscious wine country, and long ocean-side highways. Not exactly America’s underbelly.

Noir Crime Fiction The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946

John Garfield & Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946

Remember that The Postman Always Rings Twice was written in 1934 and that it was banned in Boston because of its extreme sexual and violent content. Even reading this novel in a contemporary time period I was shocked at several of these edgy scenes. These two scenes in particular blew me away:

The first scene takes place early in the novel, when Frank and Cora are alone together in Nick’s diner, and she realizes that Frank locked the main doors during business hours:

Somebody was out front, rattling the door. “Sounds like somebody trying to get in”

“Is the door locked, Frank?”

“I must have locked it.”

She looked at me, and got pale. She went to the swinging door, and peeped through. Then she went into the lunchroom, but in a minute she was back.

“They went away.”

“I don’t know why I locked it.”

“I forgot to unlock it.”

She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s–leave it locked.”

“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.”

I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers…. “Bite me! Bite me!”

I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.  pg. 11

How about that twilight fans? Straight up bloody lovin in 1937. In my opinion, it’s more revolting than it is sexy (and it still grosses me out a little when I think about it). If you are appalled, fear not you are in good company.

Noir Crime Fiction The Postman Always Rings Twice 1981

Jack Nicholson & Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice 1981

The second scene takes place at their “automobile accident”/murder. They are trying to scuff each other up to make it look real for the police investigation to come:

I hauled off and hit her in the eye as hard as I could. She went down. She was right down there at my feet, her eyes shining, her breasts trembling, drawn up in tight points, and pointing right up at me. She was down there, and the breath was roaring in the back of my throat like I was some kind of a animal, and my tongue was all swelled up in my mouth, and blood pounding in it.

“Yes! Yes, Frank, yes!”

Next thing I knew, I was down there with her, and we were starting in each other’s eyes, and locked in each other’s arms, and straining to get closer. Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it.

I had her. pg. 46

Not only was I shocked by the blatant violence of this scene, but I was shocked by the heavy handed sexual metaphors that James Cain uses (he certainly wasn’t talking about his “tongue”). This noir crime fiction shattered my perception of the “wholesome 1930s,” cause smut hasn’t changed through the century, only where to find it.

Noir Crime Fiction The Postman Always Rings Twice Pulp Cover

Pulp Cover of The Postman Always Rings Twice

Controversy surrounding the name of The Postman Always Rings Twice:

Many have speculated about what the title could possibly mean, especially after realizing that a postman never appears in the entire novel. James Cain, in one of his other famous crime noir fiction Double Indemnity, finally sought to lay the speculation to rest by discussing the controversial title in the foreword.  Cain wrote that the title The Postman Always Rings Twice came from a discussion he’d had with a screenwriter name Vincent Lawrence. This screenwriter often was plagued by anxiety when waiting for the postman to bring him news on his most recently submitted manuscript. He said that he always new when the postman had arrived because he always rang twice. This struck a cord with Cain, who then used the phrase for his novel. He and Lawrence agreed that the phrase was very symbolic of Frank Chamber’s situation at the noir crime fiction‘s conclusion. The postman is “God” or “Fate” and his delivery is justice for Frank and Cora. When the postman rings the first time they are able to escape both fate and their deserved justice, but when he rings the second time they aren’t so lucky.

This article was a bit long, sorry! But the book is awesome and I’m eager to read more from James Cain in the future! I bought my copy from Amazon.com.

The image of John Garfield and Lana Turner came from filmnoirphotos.com  .

The image of Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange came from theaceblackblog.blogspot.com .

The image of the pulp cover came from filmlinks4u.net .







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