by James M. Cain
Its first person perspective is intriguing. Young widow Joan Medford is broke. She’s forced to leave her child with hostile in-laws angling to keep him permanently. She’s eyed suspiciously by police in her husband’s auto-wreck death. Now she must make her way. And she does it by becoming a cocktail waitress, whose scanty clothes and abilityto tease – or not just tease – men are tools she must use to make money.
She rapidly gets entangled with her customers, first a wealthy older man, and then a wild younger one.
She seems on the level as she tells her story, but her actions can be differently construed. Is she hiding something?
There are some anachronism problems with this book. When it takes place isn’t clear but the period references drift. Cain’s television references are from the 1950s (Howdy Doody, Dinah Shore). Joan buying a cabinet style color television would locate it in the mid 1960s. The hot pants and topless-bar reference puts it in the late 1960s at the earliest and maybe even the 1970s. A certain drug reference narrows it to around 1960. I’m guessing the scantily-clad cocktail waitress theme was inspired by the Playboy Club, which would put this broadly (heh) in the 1960s.
The language, though, often betrays the aging Cain’s sensibilities from an earlier time, the heyday of the hard-boiled genre starting in the 1920s. That’s when folks talked about someone else getting “sore” about something. People Joan’s age in, say, the 1960s, probably wouldn’t have used the term. I always found the diction just a bit off. Joan thinks she’s positively feasting if a restaurant serves her roast beef, mashed potatoes, peas and salad; food references would ring truer in a Depression-era setting than in 1960s America.
And the aridity of the peoplescape – a lonely protagonist, surrounded by strangers on the make in a world where everyone’s understood to be out for themselves – doesn’t square as well, particularly for someone Joan’s age, with the era Cain puts her in. Youth by the mid-1960s were inundated by rock and roll, the Beatles, civil rights, the Kennedys, pot and Vietnam, a whole cultural revolution of new choices youth were beginning to make. Yet Joan seems to have no awareness of it.
Cain has taken a 1940s world and plunked it down several decades later, and like Dorothy’s house plunked down in Oz, it doesn’t always fit.
Some problems may have been unavoidable. An afterword notes Cain wrote several different versions of the story, working on it on and off until his death, but never finalized it. Editor Charles Ardai had to make choices about characters’ names, steps in the plot and even the ending, because Cain’s different versions varied widely. He effectively pieced several versions together.(I caught one error the editor didn’t: when Joan is interviewed by one of two police investigators on her case, the interview begins with it being the one and ends with it being the other.)
Still, there’s a lot of merit here. Cain was one of the masters of the genre and that definitely shows.