Book Review by Sylvia D: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) was James M. Cain’s first published novel. Cain (1882-1977) was initially a journalist and an editor but he came to be seen as one of the creators of the roman noir. He also spent many years in Hollywood working on screenplays.
This novel is very short – you can read it in an hour or so. It is violent and erotic. The action is violent, the language is violent, the sex is violent. It was banned in Boston for being too sexually violent. There is little description and we learn little about the background of the characters. In the Preface to his first novella, Double Indemnity, which was serialised in Liberty magazine in 1936, Cain wrote:
I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices and even the gutter of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, the logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.
Frank Crawford, a drifter and a jail bird, shows up at a truck stop owned by oily and naïve Greek, Nick Papadakis. Frank and Papadakis’s young and sullen wife, Cora, fall for each other in a big way. With Cora reluctant to run away with Frank and live the life of a drifter, they plot to murder the Greek. Things go wrong and they fail. The second murder plot succeeds but with unintended and unexpected consequences. Enter hard-boiled District Attorney, Mr Sackett, and, his arch-enemy, ‘leathery-faced’ Jewish lawyer, Katz. The ensuing courtroom scene is intriguing.
From there on, this is a story of betrayal, reconciliation, love and finally tragedy and just and unjust retribution.
The staccato dialogue could have been written for a film script and indeed there have been several film versions of the story, the most famous being the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner (in her first role as a femme fatale) and the 1981 one version with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.
James Lee Burke argues in his Preface to the 2005 paperback edition that:
‘[Cain’s] characters believed with the fervor of religious converts that failure to achieve the American Dream, in matters of both money and the heart, was a form of secular sin. So, in a perverse way, unbeknown to themselves, his characters commit crimes to satisfy a value system that was invented for them by others.’
If you read The Postman Always Rings Twice in this light, the behaviour of Frank and Cora becomes perhaps a little more understandable but this does not morally excuse their callous actions.
This is a book that has been on my reading list for ages as it is cited as a twentieth century classic. It was interesting to tackle a different genre but it definitely wasn’t my cup of tea. The title is an enigma.