May 22, 2024

The Search for Cain’s lost novel:
The Cocktail Waitress

Cain worked on his final novel, The Cocktail Waitress, up until his death in 1977 but it was never published. The manuscript disappeared for decades only to be rediscovered in 2011 after a long and concerted effort by the writers Charles Ardai and Max Allan Collins to locate it. The novel was finally published in 2012 and, amongst fans of the genre, it is considered the ‘lost holy grail’ of crime fiction. 

The published novel was drawn together and edited by Ardai from multiple Cain manuscripts and notes found in places thousands of miles apart. Set in the early 1960s, the story tells the tale of a beautiful young mother, Joan Medford, who comes under the suspicion of both police and family after her abusive husband dies in a car crash.

Joan desperately needs an income to support herself and her son Tad and, on a chance referral, she gets a job as a scantily clad cocktail waitress. A beautiful woman, with a skill for hospitality, she begins to thrive. The only thing missing is her son, who is staying with Joan’s sister-in-law Ethel – a cruel woman who attempts to pin her brother’s death on Joan to keep Tad for herself.

“At last I began to realise how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true”

The Cocktail Waitress

The Cocktail Waitress is a classic Cain femme fatale noir, but this time it is told from the femme fatale’s point of view. Told in the first person by an unreliable narrator, the audience is left to decide whether Joan is an unfortunate victim of circumstance, or a calculating murderer with three dead men on her hands. And, at its core, it posits a challenge: what would you have done if you were in her position?

The published novel contains an afterword by Ardai, that rightfully makes a case for Cain’s lofty position in the pantheon of noir writers and details how the ‘lost’ novel was found and published 35 years after the Cain’s death. The afterword is a detective story in its own right, with Ardai relentlessly pursuing the rumor of a final novel for nine years, collecting pieces of the story and then whole manuscripts from locations as disparate as the Library of Congress and the archived files of a long-dead Hollywood agent.

Original article in The New York Times.