Vladimir Nabokov recently did it. So did Ralph Ellison, Roberto Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, and Stieg Larsson. Now an immortal god of noir fiction, James M. Cain, has done it too – published a novel from the grave, a move that’s sure to delight Cain’s fans while dismaying those who feel that the publishing world should have the decency to let dead authors rest in peace.
Cain’s lost last novel is called The Cocktail Waitress. Like two of his early masterpieces, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, it tells the story of a sexy young woman, Joan Medford, who’s caught in a vise between a prosperous older man and a younger, more desirable, more dangerous one. Since this is a James M. Cain novel, you know there will be lust and there will be blood and things will not turn out well for either of these guys. Same goes for Joan Medford’s first husband, who is already dead when the book opens.
There are stories behind this book’s classic noir story. One is the story of its author, once famous but nearly forgotten late in life, still sweating out the words as his health fails and death closes in. Another is the story of the manuscript – or, more accurately, the manuscripts – the last things Cain produced, which never got published, then got lost for 35 years, then got found. Luckily – or unluckily, depending on your bias – the manuscripts got found by a dedicated Cain fan who also happens to be an accomplished writer and editor. And he was willing to take on the daunting task of sorting out and polishing the chaotic manuscripts, then bringing the finished book to light.
The story of the publication of The Cocktail Waitress began to unfold at the corner of Broadway and 112th Street in New York City on a fall day in 1987, when Charles Ardai, a bookish freshman English major at nearby Columbia University, was walking past a table of used books. The title of a slim volume caught his eye: Double Indemnity. He had never heard of its author, James M. Cain, but he was about to become a hopeless junkie.
“I read it in one gulp and needed more,” says Ardai (pronounced ARE-die), now 42. “I found Cain’s bleak worldview shockingly sympathetic. His world was brutal, unfair, unjust. As the son of two Holocaust survivors, you learn that the world is an uncaring place. It’s indifferent to your suffering.”
Ardai, who had started selling articles about video games while still in high school, sold his first short story, “The Long Day,” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for $250 while he was at Columbia. He was specializing in the British romantic poets at the time and embarking on a program to read every word James M. Cain ever published.
After graduation, Ardai put his writing ambitions on hold and went to work for a finance/tech company called the D. E. Shaw Group, where he worked on the early free e-mail service, Juno. Down the hall a co-worker named Jeff Bezos was putting together the concept for an online bookselling service he would eventually call Amazon.
One day Ardai and another co-worker, the graphic designer/novelist Max Phillips, were having a drink and chatting about their shared love for Cain and his pulp peers, the writers of fast-paced, blood-drenched tales that used to appear between colorful paperback covers featuring slinky women wielding a knife or a gun – or a nice dependable baseball bat. The two friends lamented the fact that the genre was in a state of eclipse, and many of the form’s masters were either dead or getting there quick.
“There’s a body on page one,” Ardai says, ticking off pulp fiction’s irresistible appeals. “The cover art is classical realism with a heightened sense of sexuality and menace. The stories are heart-stopping, a wonderful blend of high and low culture. Max and I asked ourselves: Why doesn’t anyone produce books like that anymore?”
They decided to do it themselves. Phillips did some mock-ups of cover art, and three years later he and Ardai launched a new line, a blend of reprints and paperback originals called Hard Case Crime. Their first book, Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block, has been followed by more than 70 others by such writers as Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, Madison Smartt Bell, David Goodis, and Ardai, writing under his own name and the pen name Richard Aleas. Some of the titles will stop your heart, such as Blood on the Mink, The Vengeful Virgin, and The Corpse Wore Pasties. Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid has been Hard Case Crime’s best-selling title by far, and it became the basis for the TV series Haven, now in its third season on the SyFy channel, for which Ardai has served as consulting producer and occasional scriptwriter.
Which brings us back to James M. Cain.
In 2002, while Hard Case Crime was still in the larval phase, Ardai was exchanging e-mails with Max Allan Collins, a prolific crime writer and dedicated student of the genre. While discussing possible authors for the series, they discovered they shared a passion for Cain’s work. This put them in good company. André Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre were also admirers of Cain’s stripped-down prose and bleak worldview. So was Albert Camus, who said he used Postman as a model for The Stranger.
Ardai thought he’d read every word Cain ever wrote, but Collins mentioned a book Ardai had never heard of, one that Cain had noted in an interview shortly before his death in 1977, a book that was sketchily summarized in Roy Hoopes’s 1987 biography of Cain. The book, Collins told Ardai, was called The Cocktail Waitress.
Ardai then embarked on an odyssey that would last nearly a decade. He started digging for the missing manuscript, contacting Otto Penzler, the founder of Mysterious Press, as well as academics, the Cain estate, book collectors, fellow writers. No one knew a thing. Then serendipity intervened. Ardai’s agent, Joel Gotler, inherited the business of an old-school Hollywood agent named H.N. Swanson, who had died in 1991 at the age of 91. Swanson once represented many famous writers, including William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, and, as it happened, James M. Cain.
“I asked Joel to look into Swanson’s files,” Ardai said, “and a week later an envelope showed up in the mail. It was a photocopy of The Cocktail Waitress manuscript.”
Ardai then learned that there were Cain papers in the Library of Congress, and he promptly took a train to Washington and made a heart-stopping discovery worthy of a pulp novel: more than 100 boxes of papers from all stages of Cain’s life, including other completed versions of The Cocktail Waitress, along with partial manuscripts and fragments of the novel, notes Cain wrote to himself, lists of possible names for characters, alternative titles, different versions of key scenes.
“It was like a moment out of Indiana Jones – prying the lid off the sarcophagus, blowing off the dust,” Ardai says. “It was breathtaking. I was thrilled. To find new words from an author you thought would never speak again – it was magical.”
Ardai spent three months sifting through the drafts and notes, cutting, stitching, smoothing. If anything, he had too much material to sift through. Here’s how he describes the arduous editing process in the Afterword to the published book:
Not only did Cain try out multiple variations of key scenes, he went back and forth with regard to his choices…. All of this leaves an editor in a somewhat odd position of having to choose the version of each scene – where there are multiples – that works best in and of itself and also fits best into the overall architecture of the plot. And that means deciding what pieces to leave out, a painful set of decisions. Editing the book was difficult for other reasons as well. Some lines and paragraphs needed to be excised or altered for consistency…or for pacing and focus…. On the other hand, a few excellent scenes Cain wrote in his first draft inexplicably didn’t make it into later drafts and I took the opportunity to fit them back in…
I gave particular care to the sections Cain worked over the most himself, aided by the notes he left behind, which ranged from details of setting…to chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of events and motivations…and notes on atmosphere…. It almost felt – almost – like having Cain sitting there with me at the keyboard, watching over my shoulder, keeping me on the straight and narrow.
And now we arrive at an unarguable conclusion and a delicate question. The conclusion is this: While The Cocktail Waitress has its virtues – most notably the unease Joan Medford stirs in the reader, the way it’s impossible to know if she’s a repeat killer – the book simply is not in a class with Cain’s three early masterpieces, Postman, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. Despite Ardai’s deft job of editing a messy mass of material, the book tends to lose its sharpness from time to time. You’ll cringe every time Joan Medford says “lo and behold.” For me, the setting in a bland Maryland suburb gives the proceedings a fatally tepid feel, the opposite of the smoldering dread and doom that bled through the California sunshine in Cain’s dark early masterpieces.
Ardai disagrees, sort of. “Some writers peak early and their powers wane,” he says. “Cain tried screenwriting in Hollywood and was a failure. He moved back to his native Maryland, and he hated it. He tried to write a novel set during the Civil War, and it failed. He tried to get labor unions and politics into his fiction. He seemed to have a desire to deal with Big Issues, and he just wasn’t good at it. It was almost like he was embarrassed by what he was good at – depicting individuals whose lives are coming apart. With The Cocktail Waitress he was trying to get back to the kind of story that he was known for and that he did best – brutal stories about desperate people in dire circumstances doing terrible things.”
The delicate question is this: Shouldn’t books that went unpublished in a writer’s lifetime, for whatever reason, remain unpublished after the writer’s death – especially if the writer expresses the wish that they not see print?
“If an author expressly asks that a book not be published, I would respect that,” Ardai says, quickly adding that he believes there are exceptions even to this rule. He cites the case of Franz Kafka, who ordered his friend and biographer, Max Brod, to destroy his unpublished manuscripts after his death. Brod ignored the request, and we now have him to thank for three enduring classics, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.
Ardai also cites the more recent case of Vladimir Nabokov, who ordered his family to burn the manuscript of his final, unpublished novel after his death. The “manuscript” consisted of 138 index cards, in no discernible order. Nabokov’s son and literary executor, Dmitri, kept the cards in a bank vault, occasionally showing them to scholars after his father died in 1977. Finally, in 2009, Dmitri contravened his father’s wishes and published The Original of Laura (A Novel in Fragments). “In fact,” David Gates wrote in the New York Times, “it’s simply fragments of a novel.” Even so, Ardai believes that Max Brod and Dmitri Nabokov did the right thing.”If it’s a cultural treasure – a book by a Kafka or a Nabokov – I would make an exception,” he says. And while he doesn’t claim that Cain is in Kafka’s and Nabokov’s league, he makes no apologies for bringing The Cocktail Waitress into the world.
“I don’t think it’s a classic,” he says, “but I definitely think there are things in it that are exceptional. I’m proud to publish it because of the exceptional parts and because of its historical value. You publish it not to cash in, but because major writers deserve to have their entire catalog available not just to scholars, but to readers. And it’s a good read.”
No argument there. It falls short of Cain’s best work – most books do – but Charles Ardai has done us all a service by unearthing it, lovingly shaping it, and sending it out into the world.
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]