NEW YORK - With its scent of sex, booze and despair, James M. Cain's "Mommy's a Barfly" should seem familiar to fans of the crime writer.
The short story is set in a rundown nightclub during World War II and tells of a two-timing dancer who's married to a handsome sergeant and carrying on with a "pie-faced runt." There's a torch singer named Fred, a little girl who sleeps under the bar and the sound of an ambulance as the plot wraps up.
But even the most through Cain admirer almost surely will not have read "Mommy's a Barfly," which appears in the new issue of The Strand Magazine; it apparently never was published before.
"I was going through some papers at the library of Congress and as an admirer of Cain, this one didn't ring a bell," says the Strand's managing editor, Andrew F. Gulli. "It didn't take a lot of research for me to realize that I discovered a literary treasure."
The Strand, a Birmingham, Mich.-based quarterly, also has published little known work by Mark Twain, Graham Greene and Dashiell Hammett.
Cain, who died in 1977, wrote such classic noir thrillers as "Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Mildred Pierce," all of which have been adapted into equally memorable films. "Mommy's a Barfly" has a lot of the pulpy dialogue that readers and moviegoers love, whether "Be a funny kind of heaven with her flying around in it," or an exchange between the singer and the sergeant:
Sergeant: Shut up.
Singer: I won't shut up.
Sergeant: You will or I'm socking you.
Singer: OK, then. I clam.
Gulli believes the story was written in the 1940s, during the war. It is an especially gloomy tale, from Cain's noting that the bartender once was the owner; to the line about the dancer's "gaunt" body and "haggard" face; and the way Cain sets the musical mood: "The place was a blue twilight, with Fred's voice hovering over it in songs that didn't seem to end but rather to trail off into pure sadness."
"In my view this was vintage Cain, since he tackled the consequences of human frailty better than any other writer of the 20th century," Gulli says. "His works were dark, but I think this was never published since the ending is rather nihilistic and may have been too much for magazine readers of the `40s. Like with so many of Cain's works, you can see a train wreck and you're turning the pages furiously to get to the inevitable."