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Long lost novel by James M. Cain to be published next year.

September 21, 2011

James M. Cain

The discovery of a lost manuscript by James M. Cain, the greatest of the Holy Trinity of American crime novelists, is cause to rejoice for anyone who loves hard-boiled fiction — or 20th century literature.

For a list of upcoming activities at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the center’s website. And mark your calendar: This year’s Miami Book Fair International runs Nov. 13-20.

Titled The Cocktail Waitress, the book will be published next fall. The news comes in the midst of a bit of a Cain revival, just days after  HBO’s new adaptation of Mildred Pierce won best actress and supporting actor Emmys for Kate Winslet and Guy Pierce.

“For fans of the genre, The Cocktail Waitress is the Holy Grail. It’s like finding a lost manuscript by Hemingway or a lost score by Gershwin – that’s how big a deal this is,” said Charles Ardai, founder and editor of Hard Case Crime, a line of mystery novels published by Titan books, in a statement.

Cain, best known for 1930s-era hard-boiled classics The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity, was working on a revision of The Cocktail Waitress when he died in 1977. The book was never published, the manuscript was lost.

Ironically, as Cain never write about detectives, the manuscript was found after nine years of literary sleuthing by mystery writer Max Allan Collin

Ardai located the novel after nine years of literary sleuthing — a minor irony, since unlike Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, the other founders of American hard-boiled fiction, Cain never wrote about cops or detectives.

Indeed, while Hammett and Chandler deserve their place in the canon of crime fiction, Cain stands head and shoulders above them. Hammett wrote the iconic novel The Maltese Falcon, while Chandler gave the world Philip Marlowe and set the standard for easily spoofable wordplay in detective fiction, with lines like, “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.,” or “[S]he was as naked as a September morn, but a darn sight less coy.”

By contrast, Cain was interested in human character, writing from the point of view of the criminal, or the poor sap gone bad through a combination of hard luck and bad influences. His breakout novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, brims with adultery and murder, but you understand why the lovers killed the husband. Mildred Pierce doesn’t even feature a murder and can hardly be labeled crime fiction, except for the suspense Cain maintains from first page to last.

The French Nobelist Albert Camus acknowledged his debt to Cain in writing his first novel, The Stranger. For more detail on Cain’s writing and his influence — not only on literature, but also the movies — see this excellent 2001 appreciation from the Guardian.

Descriptions of The Cocktail Waitress sound like vintage Cain. A young woman has to take a job as a cocktail waitress after her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. She takes up with two men — one she loves, the other she marries for money.

I can only hope Kate Winslet will be available when HBO gets around to making a film version.


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