What is it with dead American writers? Years after they’ve popped their clogs, some of the biggest names in crime fiction continue to produce novels from beyond the grave. Mario Puzo has been sleeping with the fishes since 1999, but that hasn’t stopped him clanking out Omertà (2000) and The Family (2001), the latter of which was based on an unfinished manuscript posthumously completed by his longterm girlfriend.
Michael Crichton died in 2008. A year later, his fans were able to enjoy Pirate Latitudes, a novel based — once again — on an incomplete manuscript found among Crichton’s papers. Yet both men have been slouches in comparison to Robert Ludlum. The creator of Jason Bourne didn’t live to see Matt Damon’s incarnation of the character. Nevertheless, Ludlum has been busily tapping away at the great typewriter in the sky, producing no fewer than 17 novels since his death in 2001. As Puzo’s Michael Corleone might have put it: ‘Publishing isn’t personal. It’s strictly business.’
Three of the biggest beasts in the hard-boiled jungle are now getting in on the act. The Cocktail Waitress is billed as ‘the lost final novel’ of James M. Cain, the creator of Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. (Historical note: postmen don’t even bother ringing any more. They just leave a card saying you were out.) Cain died in 1977. His literary executor, Charles Ardai, assembled The Cocktail Waitress from dozens of unfinished drafts and fragments found scattered across the United States.
‘None of the manuscripts was dated,’ Ardai writes in an afterword. ‘Many contained the same scenes, only arranged in a different order; some had the same scenes, only written slightly differently.’ Character names changed from version to version, as did the title (at one point, Cain experimented with American Beauty).
Set in the suburbs of Washington DC during the 1950s, The Cocktail Waitress is narrated by Joan Medford, an enigmatic (and pneumatic) 21-year-old single mother who is ‘quite an eyeful with no clothes on’. Following her husband’s mysterious and untimely death, Medford takes a job working tables at a cocktail bar to make ends meet. There she encounters two suitors: Earl K. White, a sleazy millionaire with a dodgy ticker; and a smooth, good-looking hothead, Tom Barclay, with whom she falls in love. Given the constraints of tying together a novel from random fragments, it is to Ardai’s credit that he has produced a coherent story, albeit one that lacks the zing and suspense of Cain’s best work.
Next to The Return of the Thin Man, however, The Cocktail Waitress is a masterpiece. Once again, we are in ‘lost manuscript’ territory. ‘Dashiell Hammett wrote only five books,’ the jacket tells us. ‘This is the sixth.’ Well, not quite. The Return of the Thin Man is a book only in the sense that a telephone directory is a thing you can pick up and read. What we have here isn’t a novel: it’s a couple of long movie treatments Hammett wrote following the success of the 1934 film adaptation of his novel, The Thin Man.
Caveat emptor, in other words. The Return of the Thin Man is being marketed as ‘the last long piece of fiction Hammett ever wrote’, but it’s really just a studio description of two Thin Man sequels starring William Powell and Myrna Loy — After the Thin Man (1936) and Another Thin Man (1939). You’d be better off renting the DVDs from LoveFilm. In the movie business, treatments are regarded as a necessary evil. They lay out the plot, they contain some of the dialogue essential to the telling of the story, but they are devoid of all but the most basic descriptions and certainly make no attempt to convey the emotional states of the characters.
Hammett made a small fortune in Hollywood, and you can see why. His treatments are slick and effective, with some snappy chat, but as a work to be compared with The Maltese Falcon, this is of negligible interest.
Fans of hard-boiled fiction may have more luck with the new Raymond Chandler novel, due next year. For once, it won’t be based on notes in a ringbinder found at the bottom of Chandler’s underwear drawer. Instead, John Banville has been approached to write a Philip Marlowe sequel in the Chandler style. It’s a tough gig, even for an author of Banville’s talent. Not many writers could match this, from The Big Sleep:
She bit her lip and turned her head a little and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. It was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.
Perhaps Banville is secretly hoping to turn up an ‘undiscovered manuscript’.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012