If James M. Cain was standing here right now in front of me, I’d smack him right in the mouth. The ending to this, his long-lost (and last) noirish melodrama has an ending so mean-spirited and casually cruel that I felt like hitting something. Or someone. The saddest irony, though, may be that younger noir fans may not even “get” it, and that older fans, hardened by years of everincreasing violence and shock tactics of so much contemporary “noir” may be too calloused to care. Or notice. But trust me: The trick “gotcha” at the end hit me at a level usually reserved for invasive surgery.
Alas, it’s also one of the few truly effective moments in this uneven, troubled book, diligently and respectfully patched together from numerous, often undated drafts by Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai. The book was still being worked on when Cain died in 1977, but it seems caught in a strange temporal limbo, juggling me-decade frankness—where female sexual response is clearly, if clinically, evoked—with fifties-era sexual reticence, where men are men, women worry about which little hat to wear to which function, and bedroom doors stay shut, barricaded by euphemisms.
It all starts out like a Springsteen song: a young girl, an unwanted pregnancy, a shotgun wedding, an abusive husband, and, finally, a wreck on the highway. But for sudden widow, single mom, and narrator Joan, it’s only the beginning. Penniless, she reluctantly agrees to let her not-quite-right sisterin-law, Ethel, take care of her young son, Tad, while she looks for work. A friendly cop’s lead points to The Garden of Roses, a local joint where scantily clad waitresses offer food, drink, and cleavage. Joan fits the costume and fits right in, and with regular pay coming in (plus tips) she starts to dream of getting Tad back. She also finds herself caught between the attentions of two of her new “regulars”: young handsome Tom, a slick go-getter with big plans of his own, and Earl K. White, III, a lonely, elderly businessman who becomes obsessed with Joan.
Fans of Cain’s classic novels will recognize many of his familiar tropes: lust, class tensions, sham marriages, tawdry moral leaps, desperate ambition, and, of course, murder. But this latter work seems less like a greatest hits album and more like a collection of vivid outtakes; important historically but not quite up to Cain’s best work.