The Cocktail Waitress was James M Cain's last work of fiction before his death in 1977, a hard case crime story that was written and lost in the final years of his life. The novel was eventually recovered nine years later by the editor of the hard case crime series, Charles Ardai. He assembled a publishable version from Cain's transcript and many notes with vital scenes played out many times.
The story is told in first person with the narrator being the young, stunningly beautiful Joan Medford, starting with the funeral of her husband and the first meeting of the young love interest Tom Barclay. Her husband was an abusive drunk who died in a car crash, circumstances place the young widow under suspicion but with no real proof the investigation peters out.
With no income Joan is forced into work as a cocktail waitress where she meets the extremely rich investor, Earl K. White, an old man suffering from angina. Mr White is smitten and tips Joan excessively. So there's the love triangle, add into the mix Joan's young son and there's a lot at stake for our young cocktail waitress.
You can't help but see Joan Medford as a victim of circumstance, her narration is on the cusp of honesty, there's only one point where she hints at what's underneath, a conversation with a lawyer who advises her on certain points as her marriage to the rich old man becomes an ever closer step to reality.
But death follows this girl round like a lost puppy, hand in hand with suspicion it seems, the author cleverly forces you to care about Joan Medford as everything teeters on disaster and then it all just falls into her lap. Her perception is one of innocence, a hapless victim surrounded by deaths she neither caused nor contributed to.
You have to question the narrator though, is she relating every last thought, well that’s entirely up to you and only on the very last page does it all click into place. A femme fatale or just a nice girl that swings the boundaries of luck incessantly. There has to be something though, you know it's going to happen and it doesn't make it any less shocking when all is revealed, definitely well worth the wait after a few stutters regarding the pace.