Raising Cain: A new novel from a master of noir

How a posthumous novel by 'Mildred Pierce' author James M. Cain was discovered and released.

Cain had a remarkable ability to create fictional females of great depth, including the character of Mildred Pierce, a role for which Kate Winslet recently won an Emmy.

A mid-century author named James M. Cain was married four times, suggesting that he might not have known a lot about women. Four of film's greatest actresses would beg to differ.

Cain created the characters who'd become two of the most stunning femme fatales in movie history, thanks to Lana Turner and Barbara Stanwyck. Yet another Cain creation, a complicated martyr of a mother named Mildred Pierce, won Joan Crawford an Oscar.

Cain passed away more than three decades ago, but was back in the news this week, right after Kate Winslet won an Emmy for taking on the iconic Crawford role in HBO's "Mildred Pierce."

Hard Case Crime, a publisher of paperback noir fiction, announced that it will release a never-before-seen novel by Cain late next year. Cain wrote it toward the end of his life in the 1970s.

Charles Ardai, the founder and editor of the publishing house, discovered the novel, "The Cocktail Waitress," in the papers of Cain's agent. Ardai talked to me this week about the preeminent role of women in Cain novels, the challenges of editing the noir master's work and why the words "skateboard" and "Muzak" will likely end up on the cutting room floor.

Q: Cain has this remarkable ability to create female characters of great depth. Was that unusual among his peers?

A: He's unique among the noir greats, who also included Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, in that he has the greatest interest in and sympathy for his female characters. They're not just things to be protected or prizes to be won. They're more complicated.

Q: What is "The Cocktail Waitress" about?

A: It's a first-person novel, a story of a woman in desperate straits who has a child to raise. She takes a job as a waitress.

You can feel the economic desperation. Even though it's not set during the Depression, it has that feeling of someone who’s on the edge of disaster. And you have considerable sexual tension. That combination is a volatile one, and that's what makes Cain. In noir, you need to feel the sweat of the characters, and that's what you do in the best Cain books.

Q: When is the book set?

A: It's set in the then-present, the mid-1970s. But it reads as though it was were set in the 1940s and 1950s other than one reference to a skateboard and, I think, a reference to Muzak.

I'm more than happy to take out the words "skateboard" and "Muzak" and let people enjoy it as if it were set in the high noir period of the 1940s.

Q: How did this book become lost in the first place?

A: Cain wrote it in the late 1970s, sent it to an agent, and the agent sent it to an editor. Cain said he wasn't satisfied with the ending, and spent some months working on a revised ending. Handwritten notes give you a good insight into what he was changing.

My guess is that he never managed to put all his changes into a final draft, and then he died. If he'd had a son or daughter to organize his papers, it may have popped up earlier.

Q: How are you figuring out which revisions to keep and which ones to take out?

A: There are some parts that are easier. For the rest, I'm going to be spending some time in the archive rooms at the Library of Congress going through correspondence, and I'll go through all the primary source evidence I've got to determine what his intent would have been. I'll be doing the work of a responsible editor to shape it into the best story it could be.

Q: The book has multiple revisions of the ending. How will you figure out which one to keep?

A: There’s a good deal of variety, but the core events are the same in them. The last line does not change, nor should it.

Q: Is there a variety of endings, maybe a happy one and a not-so-happy one?

A: How many noir books have happy endings?

Q: Good point.

A: At best, it's "Happy for whom?"

Randy Dotinga is a a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.

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