Now his long-lost last novel, “The Cocktail Waitress,” is landing in book stores, 35 years after the Annapolis-born Cain, an unintentional co- founder of the noir or hard-boiled school of crime fiction, died at age 85.
At the end, he lived alone in a little house on 44th Avenue in University Park. Gruff, widowed, childless, beset by a bum ticker, he wrote the novel in these last few years of his life, says Charles Ardai, the editor at Hard Case Crime, an imprint lovingly devoted to old-school noir. Ardai discovered the manuscript of the book last year, after a search that lasted nearly a decade.
“It was like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he says.
Cain mentioned the book in a 1975 interview with biographer Roy Hoopes, which was published in the Washingtonian. “I started a book that was supposed to have a background in [Prince George’s] county politics . . . a book came out of it — ‘The Cocktail Waitress’ — which I am finishing now, but it is completely different from the book I started to write.”
When Cain died two years later, the book had not appeared, and no one was beating down the door for a new book from the old master. It had been years since he had a hit. He had fallen into obscurity and reduced financial circumstances, Ardai says. The writer left his literary estate to a neighbor.
Cain had written a fine crime novel, “Rainbow’s End,” a few years earlier, but mainly he spent his last days writing grandpa-style stories about life in early 20th century for The Washington Post and local magazines. The last story he wrote appeared in The Post four days after he died.
Keith Alan Deutsch, publisher of the pulp magazine Black Mask, talked to Cain by phone several times during this period, but there was no real hint of a book in the offing. “He was a little senile, he was not a reliable person,” Deutsch says. “He once meant to mail me some material. He sent a series of blank papers.”
Years and then decades passed.
Ardai had heard the story of the lost book in 2002. He hunted through old letters, talked to people, searched Cain’s papers at the Library of Congress. He found bits and pieces of the manuscript — Cain started 100 pages of the book in third person, then switched to first person, his favored narrative style.
The end of the search came last year, in a plot twist Cain himself would have scoffed at: The agent who had the most complete manuscript was, in fact, Ardai’s own Tinseltown agent. It had been sitting in a box behind his desk the entire time.
“I didn’t realize it had never been published,” says Joel Gotler, a titan in the biz, laughing almost sheepish. He inherited the literary stable of Hollywood legend H.N. Swanson, who had represented Cain. “I just had to turn around in my chair to the box it was in.”