Excerpt from James M. Cain's lost final novel: The Cocktail Waitress

Good news for James M. Cain fans (like me!) -- Hard Case Crime is publishing his lost final novel: The Cocktail Waitress.

After the jump, an excerpt from the book.

Cocktailwaitress“Here, long after anyone would have expected it, is the voice of James M. Cain, as fresh and as relevant as ever. The Cocktail Waitress will involve you, and then shock you with an ending you'll never forget. This is a true rarity: a reader's novel that's also a literary event.” – Stephen King

The Cocktail Waitress was the final book written by Cain, who died in 1977. He was working on revisions to the novel until close to the end of his life; handwritten notes and edits appear in the margins of numerous pages of the original manuscript. Charles Ardai, founder and editor of Hard Case Crime, first learned of the book’s existence from Max Allan Collins, author of Road to Perdition, and has spent more than nine years tracking down the author’s original manuscript and arranging to get the rights to publish the book.

“Together with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain is universally considered one of the three greatest writers of noir crime fiction who ever lived, “ said Ardai, “and for fans of the genre, The Cocktail Waitress is the Holy Grail. It’s like finding a lost manuscript by Hemingway or a lost score by Gershwin -- that’s how big a deal this is.”

Combining themes from Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Cocktail Waitress tells the story of a beautiful young widow, Joan Medford, whose husband died under suspicious circumstances. Desperate to make ends meet after his death, she takes a job as a waitress in a cocktail lounge, where she meets two new men: a handsome young schemer she falls in love with, and a wealthy older man she marries.

Excerpt from The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain:

I come now to Tom Barclay, but before I tell about him, what he did to me and what I did to him, I have to tell about our pants, the hot pants Liz went out and bought, for her and me to put on, without telling Bianca we would, thereby causing a situation. It might sound frivolous, coming on the heels of such serious matters as potentially being accused of murder-but everything else stemmed from it, however trivial it might have seemed at the start.

It was the first week of July, and murderously hot in the Garden, even with air-conditioning. That was unusual in Hyattsville, because Prince George's County doesn't have it hot like in Washington, or in Montgomery County in Maryland, alongside Prince George's but north of it; and vice versa, not such cold weather in winter. But we had it hot this time, and not being used to it, our clientele was feeling it more than some other clientele might. And of course all the girls were feeling it, especially Liz. During a lull one night she said to me: "Joanie, not to get personal, but are you getting damp, like? In a certain intimate place? That we don't mention in mixed company, but between girls could be called the crotch?"

"Liz, it's these velveteen trunks-"

"They're nothing other than murder-"

"And, Liz, the pantyhose make it still worse."

"Joanie, we're doing something about it, but don't ask Bianca's permission, because she could say no for some reason, and I'm not sure what I'd do about it. I could blow my top, but don't want to. You know what I mean, Joanie? I like it here."

"What are you going to do?"

"You'll see."

So I saw, because next night here she came in with four pairs of

chambray hot pants, in the same color the velveteens were, crimson. Or almost the same color-they were really more like maroon, which of course had some black mixed in, instead of blue. When I'd paid her for my two, one to wear, the other to wash overnight, she led the way back to the locker room, where we made the switch. "And Joanie," she whispered, when we both had the velveteens off, "we take off the pantyhose too. And we don't put them back on."

"Are you sure we shouldn't ask Bianca?"

"No, Joanie, we should not."

"Why not? Why go looking for trouble?"

"That's it, she might say no."

And when I'd peeled the pantyhose off, and had put the hot pants on, pulling them up over skin, she said: "And, with the legs you got, Joanie, it could also be a nice feature. It could attract trade, you know what I mean."

"Speak for yourself, why don't you?"

"O.K., then, O.K."

Under pantyhose I wear panties-there's two schools of opinion about it, but decency, it seems to me, as well as personal cleanliness, wants that layer of silk, in against your personal parts. So, silk panties inside, chambray pants outside, both kind of loose, don't forget-and topside the peasant blouse as I always wore it before to go out on the floor, when who should come in but Bianca. We had it hot for some minutes-she didn't really have a good objection to offer, but insisted she should have been asked.

I said: "O.K., then we ask."

"And the answer, Joan, is no."

Liz cut in: "No, Bianca, on this we don't ask you, we tell you. Did you hear what I said?"

Bianca was looking furious, but I could see her sense of affront warring with her native preference to give in when pressed. Liz must have seen it, too, and pressed harder.

"O.K., then, we strike. As of right now, if you say we have to wear those velveteens in this heat, we're on strike. We're going to letter us up some signs and parade up and down in front. And we'll wear these when we do it."

"But those hot pants'll get wrinkles in them," Bianca said. "All pointing front and center and down. They won't be decent."

"Wrinkles are good for business. Wrinkles like you say we'll have." Liz went on: "Anyhow we won't have wrinkles, Bianca, these pants are made out of chambray-chambray the shirting material, made on purpose not to get wrinkles." She pulled out the label on her extra pair. "Hey, these are Burlington pants. Wake up-Burlington wouldn't make wrinkles."

It gave her the excuse she needed, to save face: "Then-I guess it's O.K."

"Then, Bianca," I told her, "we graciously call the strike off."

"O.K., Joan."

She kissed me, and Liz gave a little cheer, and that was the end of the matter.

So I thought.

I guess it was 11:30 that night, when Tom came in with his friends, three other guys and two girls, the men all young and rugged and both the women beauties, and all of them half crocked when they got there. Liz had overflow business, and Bianca gave them to me, putting them in a booth, which made a pretty tight fit. It was so tight that Tom had to push one girl in just a little bit tighter before wedging in himself, on the left side of the booth as I faced it, which of course put him next to me, one leg jutting out into the aisle, when I stood in to serve. He grinned naughtily at me, in a way clearly meant to make my heart race, and it annoyed me that, being a rather handsome grin, it did, just a little. Then they all began ordering doubles-bourbon and ginger ale, I suppose the worst combination ever, not only to make them all drunker, but also to make them sick. However, Bianca said go along, give them what they wanted. "He's an old friend, Tom Barclay is, so don't hurt his feelings, please." I tried to imagine how this young buck with the rakish grin could be an old friend of a woman Bianca's age, and I suppose it showed in my face because Bianca said, "His father was a regular here from the time my husband built the place. Tom's grown up here."

He didn't seem to have grown up too much, judging by the way he was carrying on with his friends. But Liz got in the act, saying how nice he was, "except of course when slopped, but even then no worse than somebody else. Who is nice slopped?"

"I couldn't think of anyone."

Serving drinks to the slopped is no work to write home about, no matter how nice when sober. The girls got louder and louder, and the guys more personal with me, meaning they said things no one should say, to any girl any time anywhere. But Tom, being next to the aisle and to me, didn't confine it to saying. He also did some doing, pawing me over whenever I came to the table, especially around the bottom, which he patted a number of times. I fixed that by stepping away, and no great harm was done. But then, as I was reaching across to pour one of the girls her drink, he put his hand on my leg, on my bare leg, above the knee on the inside, and began sliding it up. You can see now why I've gone into such detail, about the hot pants, the silk panties underneath, and how loose they both were. I'm trying to say I all but turned to ice, and reacted automatically: I clamped both legs together, so his hand couldn't move, and at the same time turned away, on my heel or something. But that pulled his hand around too, and I suppose threw him off balance, because all in the same split second, there he was on the floor, pulled out of the booth when I turned. Then, in a flash, there was Liz. And then, there was Bianca. It was she, not me, who saw what the fall had done to him-reacted on his stomach, so he was holding on to his mouth, gulping and gag- ging and trying not to throw up on the floor. And I was standing back, his hand off me at last, wondering what I should do.

It was one of his friends, sliding out of the booth, who got him to his feet and began rushing him back to the men's room, growling into his ear: "Not here, Tommy, not here! Hold it! Hold it three more steps, and then let it come, the whole goddam bellyful!"

He got to the men's room without letting go in the lounge, and after a long moment of silence, somebody laughed and conversation went on. Bianca, for once in her life, showed some spine, and said to the bunch at the table: "You've all had enough. When you've drunk out, you can get. I said get, I mean get the hell out."

She came, stood by me, and waited while Jake went back in the men's room. He came out and came over. "We're in luck," he reported. "He let go all right, five and a half gallons-but in the toilet. He flushed it, and not none went on the floor."

He went back to the bar.

The friend came out of the men's room, and rejoined his other two friends and the girls.

Then at last, here came Tom.

He started for the booth, but changed his mind and sat at a table, the same one Mr. White sat at, every day when he came. I brought him a cup of hot coffee from the kitchen, black, and said: "Maybe this will help."

"You bet," he whispered. "Thanks."

He sipped it, flinched at how hot it was, then sipped again. He kept on sipping until it was all gone, then wiped his mouth with a cocktail napkin. He took out a pocket comb and combed his hair, and then picked up the napkin again and wiped his face, where it was covered with sweat. "Feel better now," he said with a smile more subdued than the grin he'd given me before, but no less handsome, and don't think he didn't know it.

"Wouldn't you like a little more coffee?" I said.

"No, I'm O.K. now."

"You sure you are?"

"Oh yeah. I feel good now."

"Then in that case-"

I stood off and let go at his cheek with one hand, I guess on my right-hand side, then with my other hand on his right-on his left and his right. Then I let go all over again, as he half stood and tried to grab my hand. But I yanked them clear and kept on slapping, with everything I had. The guy who had gone to the men's room with him came diving over and grabbed me, "wrapping me up" as it's called, but I jerked loose and let him have it too, so he staggered and fell. Then I turned back to Tom, and really went to finish him off, and trying to duck me he fell too, beside his friend on the floor. By then, as Liz told me later, the whole place was in an uproar, with Bianca grabbing at me, and Jake grabbing at me, everyone grabbing at me, trying to make me lay off. Of course, with Tom on the floor, I had to lay off, and did. But it was some seconds before I realized what Bianca was saying, as she kept backing away from me, where I must have made a swipe at her too. "You're fired!" she kept screaming at me. "You're fired!-now get out, you get out of here! Didn't you hear me? I said get out!"

By that time I'd come to my senses, a blend of indignation on the one hand and shame on the other; that, and rage at myself for losing my temper and, with it, the job I needed so badly. I'd told myself I'd do anything to get my son back-but one drunk's wandering hands had been enough to make me a liar. I cursed my temper as I headed back to the locker room.

I'd come to work in my uniform, but I'd worn a spring coat to hide it, and I had left some other clothes in my locker besides-the denim pants that I'd worn that first day, and a plain white linen top. I was there, peeling off, when Liz appeared, and she began taking her uniform off too. "She's not doing it to you, baby! You hear what I said? I told her-told her to her face she's not. So we're both out, same like. It's how it always winds up, these goddam jobs in a ginmill, but tomorrow we'll look up another."

Then Bianca was there, and Liz let her have it direct, with what she told me but more, expressed in potent language, at which Liz was quite good. And Bianca just stood there and took it, by the benches in the middle, while I kept on changing my clothes. And then lo and behold, who should be there but Tom. He looked hangdog and pale, but passably sober now that he had some coffee in him, and perhaps my slaps had knocked some of the drunkenness out of him as well. "What's going on?" he wanted to know.

"What do you think's going on?" Bianca answered. "I'm sorry, Tom. But the kind of help I get now, these things can happen, and do. Please overlook it, this once. It won't happen again, I promise you."

"I asked what's going on?"

"She's fired, that's what's going on."

"No, Bianca, she's not. Not over a smack or two."

"A smack? She was giving it to you like Floyd Patterson in the fifth round, and not only you. She'd have decked me if I hadn't stepped back at the right moment."

"But you did."

"Your friend didn't, and got a right to the jaw."

"From a southpaw," Tom said. "He'll recover."

"Listen, Tom, I can't have a girl in this place that treats you the way she did. Treats any customer like that, but especially you. That-"

"Goddam it, I said she's not fired." He advanced on us both and Bianca shrank away.

"She'll apologize, and it won't happen again. Isn't that right?"

"She's not apologizing for anything," Liz shouted, but I put a hand on her arm.

"I was out of line, Bianca, and I'm sorry. I lost my temper."

Liz was having none of it. "Joanie! I saw what-"

"Oh, he deserved it, and worse. But I still shouldn't have done it."

"Bianca?" Tom said. "I'm satisfied, are you?"

"Three broken dishes! And a stain in the carpet-"

"I'll pay for it."

"I can't take your money, Tom-"

"I'll pay for it."

She looked as though this might finally be her breaking point, the time she put her foot down and wouldn't be moved. But finally she muttered, "O.K., O.K., Tom. If you want it that way."

"She stays?"

"If she controls that temper in the future."

Liz snapped: "How about if Tom here controls his hands? And after I vouched for you, too!"

That began another round of it. It took us ten minutes to get it all settled down, with Tom leading Bianca back to the bar and Liz and I changing back into our uniforms. When Liz and I went back there, things were going as usual, only with Bianca serving the drinks as Jake mixed them. In a half hour or so we closed, but when Tom and his party went, he still hadn't paid his check, never mind the extra for the damage I'd caused. "Don't worry," Bianca told me, still mad, it seemed. "He promised he will. You won't be out anything."

"You bet she won't," Liz told her. "Did you hear me?"

"Liz, I heard enough for one night."

Buy The Cocktail Waitress on Amazon



  1. “That was unusual in Hyattsville, because Prince George’s County doesn’t have it hot like in Washington, or in Montgomery County in Maryland, alongside Prince George’s but north of it; and vice versa, not such cold weather in winter.”

    Wow, that sentence is murder. That whole paragraph, for that matter. It’s clear this was still going through the editorial process, and it’s why I’m not that big a fan of authors’ unpublished works.

  2. When I look at the title cover, my head automatically looks to the bottom of the cover to see for why there’s a *.

Comments are closed.