Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in the 1944 noir film Double Indemnity. (Anonymous/ASSOCIATED…)
James M. Cain was a tougher writer than anybody in this joint. Sex, murder, bad women, worse men. He slapped your face and told you to like it.
“Double Indemnity. ” “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” “Mildred Pierce.” They were outrageous sensations as books and films back in the Depression and just after. People still eat them up. Kate Winslet starred in “Pierce” on HBO last year; the Round House Theatre in Bethesda staged “Double” this summer.
Now his long-lost last novel, “The Cocktail Waitress,” is landing in book stores, 35 years after the Annapolis-born Cain, an unintentional co- founder of the noir or hard-boiled school of crime fiction, died at age 85.
At the end, he lived alone in a little house on 44th Avenue in University Park. Gruff, widowed, childless, beset by a bum ticker, he wrote the novel in these last few years of his life, says Charles Ardai, the editor at Hard Case Crime, an imprint lovingly devoted to old-school noir. Ardai discovered the manuscript of the book last year, after a search that lasted nearly a decade.
“It was like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he says.
Cain mentioned the book in a 1975 interview with biographer Roy Hoopes, which was published in the Washingtonian. “I started a book that was supposed to have a background in [Prince George’s] county politics . . . a book came out of it — ‘The Cocktail Waitress’ — which I am finishing now, but it is completely different from the book I started to write.”
When Cain died two years later, the book had not appeared, and no one was beating down the door for a new book from the old master. It had been years since he had a hit. He had fallen into obscurity and reduced financial circumstances, Ardai says. The writer left his literary estate to a neighbor.
Cain had written a fine crime novel, “Rainbow’s End,” a few years earlier, but mainly he spent his last days writing grandpa-style stories about life in early 20th century for The Washington Post and local magazines. The last story he wrote appeared in The Post four days after he died.
Keith Alan Deutsch, publisher of the pulp magazine Black Mask, talked to Cain by phone several times during this period, but there was no real hint of a book in the offing. “He was a little senile, he was not a reliable person,” Deutsch says. “He once meant to mail me some material. He sent a series of blank papers.”
Years and then decades passed.
Ardai had heard the story of the lost book in 2002. He hunted through old letters, talked to people, searched Cain’s papers at the Library of Congress. He found bits and pieces of the manuscript — Cain started 100 pages of the book in third person, then switched to first person, his favored narrative style.
The end of the search came last year, in a plot twist Cain himself would have scoffed at: The agent who had the most complete manuscript was, in fact, Ardai’s own Tinseltown agent. It had been sitting in a box behind his desk the entire time.
“I didn’t realize it had never been published,” says Joel Gotler, a titan in the biz, laughing almost sheepish. He inherited the literary stable of Hollywood legend H.N. Swanson, who had represented Cain. “I just had to turn around in my chair to the box it was in.”
Ardai assembled the book, based on this manuscript, a task made more difficult because the drafts were not dated. “We had to pick and choose the best material,” he says.
Here’s the plot, set in about 1960: Joan Medford, a very recent widow with a bust line, a baby and bad relatives, takes a scantily clad waitressing gig at the Garden of Roses, “on Upshur Street in Hyattsville, across from the County Building, which is on Highway No. 1 at the south of town, ‘The Boulevard,’ as it’s called.”
A rich, older dude named Earl K. White III admires the gams and the cleavage. So does Tom Barclay, a younger stud. You know things aren’t going to end well, and they don’t.
This is vintage Cain.
“He liked scrappy women with a sultry edge,” says James Grady , author of “Six Days of the Condor,” who gave a presentation about Cain at the Politics & Prose bookstore and coffeehouse in the District this summer.
The novelist Michael Connelly, reviewing “Waitress” for the New York Times, said the book doesn’t rate with Cain’s best, but “the self-knowledge Joan possesses is perfect and some of the best stuff Cain ever put down on paper.”
Cain didn’t like writing stories about happy people doing happy things, and in his best books, if not his own life, he didn’t care for the cheerful, either.
When Hoopes told him, in those final interviews, that he’d led a fascinating life, Cain harrumphed: “It may be to you, but it’s never been interesting to me.”