September 2012 | Nate Pedersen

Lost Cain Novel Published Today

About a year ago, we reported on the discovery of a lost novel by James M. Cain, a master crime writer of the mid 20th century, whose works include Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Today, that novel, The Cocktail Waitress, will be published for the first time by Hard Case Crime, a noir imprint founded by Charles Ardai.  Charles recently answered some questions for us about the hunt for the lost Cain novel, the challenges of editing posthumous work, and the book's standing in Cain's impressive oeuvre:

Ardai-Shadow-low.jpgNP: When and where did you hear about the lost Cain novel???

CA: Back when I was first working on getting Hard Case Crime off the ground - this was about a decade ago -- I was talking with Max Allan Collins, and he said, "Did you know there is an unpublished James M. Cain novel?  You should try to track that down."  Well, I hadn't known - and tracking it down turned out to be much harder than anyone expected.
NP: How did you track it down?  Tell us about the hunt...??

CA: It began with calls and emails to everyone I knew who might have an idea where the manuscript could be.  The agents for the Cain estate didn't have a copy, no collector I contacted did, no academics. So I widened the search.  Other agents. Other authors. Fans. But they were all dead ends.  Then I found myself talking about the search with my Hollywood agent, Joel Gotler, and he said that he'd inherited the files of an old-time agent named H.N. Swanson, who had been Cain's agent back in the day.  I asked him to check Swanson's files to see if there was any reference to THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS in them - and there not only was a reference, there was a copy of the manuscript! ??

But that turned out not to be the end of the search. Cain's papers are kept at the Library of Congress, and in among a batch of unrelated material I turned up several more drafts - some typed, some handwritten and almost indecipherable.  In the end, I had more COCKTAIL WAITRESS than I knew what to do with!  So the challenge became how to turn the multiple drafts into a single novel.

James_M._Cain.jpgNP: Tell us about that.  How did you decide which parts to include from the different manuscripts???

CA: Well, some of the choices were clear.  Cain wrote his first draft in the third person, but all subsequent drafts were in his customary first person, and he'd said in interviews that he preferred the first person for the book -- so clearly we had to go with first person.  But other choices were less obvious, ranging from what name to give each character (Cain sometimes went back and forth four or five times) to how the book should end (he wrote several endings and told his editor he was still working on it).  In the end, I approached it the same way I would with any living author.  My job as editor is to take what the author hands me and turn it into the best book it can be.  It's easier when the author's there to answer questions and make choices - but it's not as though I've never worked on posthumous books before.  In fact, I seem to have made something of a specialty of it, having published posthumous work by Donald Westlake, Mickey Spillane, David Dodge, Roger Zelazny, and Lester Dent.  You do your best to be true to the book the author wrote, while giving readers the most satisfying possible read.
cocktail waitress.jpgNP: Who did the gorgeous cover art for your edition???

CA: Michael Koelsch, who previously painted our covers for SAY IT WITH BULLETS by Richard Powell, SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY by Donald Westlake, and BLOOD ON THE MINK by Robert Silverberg.  All terrific covers, and his painting for THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS is probably my favorite of the four.
NP: Where do you rank "The Cocktail Waitress" in the Cain oeuvre?  And what's your personal opinion of it -- did you like it?  Love it?

CA: It's great - as a long-time Cain fan, I still get goosebumps at hearing the master's voice one last time.  There are lines in the book, and plot twists, that only Cain could have come up with.  Will it knock THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE off its pedestal as one of the very best noir novels ever written?  Of course not, just as other great Cain novels didn't - not SERENADE, not JEALOUS WOMAN, not PAST ALL DISHONOR.  But I think THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS holds its own very well with those.  If you can only read one Cain book in your life, read POSTMAN - but why in the world should you only read one Cain book?  Read a batch - they're short, and oh so good.
Many thanks to Charles for this interview.  Check out the Hard Case Crime website to learn more about the imprint and to explore its delightful catalogue of publications.