When James Cain’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934, it was well-received—critically and publically, but the novel was embargoed in Boston for vulgarity. Its appearance gave way to a new genre of crime/detective fiction—the roman noir, which pumped up the dark and stale—not the sizzling and dazzling–aspects of sex and violence.
Cain presented these issues dispassionately and efficiently—in this—and in Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Dialogue was parsed, and plots unraveled with precision.
When the movie premiered in 1946, it was outlawed in Indonesia, Switzerland and Spain.
Frank Chambers is a muscular 24-year-old hobo-wanderer who shows up at an out-of-the-way California diner after “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” By the time he finishes his meal and bewitches Nick, the owner, Frank has obtained a job.
The establishment is managed by Nick’s wife, Cora, who is unhappy, frustrated, and repulsed by her husband:
The hell he’s all right. He stinks, I tell you. He’s greasy and he
stinks. And do you think I’m going to let you wear a smock, with
Service Auto Parts printed on the back, Thank-U Call Again, while he has four suits and a dozen silk shirts? Isn’t that business half mine? Don’t I cook? Don’t I cook good?
For her: Frank is sexual “relief”: no good, but good.
For him: she is sultry, beautiful and irresistible:
I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers…Bite me! Bite me!
I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.
She is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’s Blanche du Bois and Maggie the Cat; like them, Cora recruits love—any kind—even if it’s scandalous.
In the midst of their mutual fervor, the pair wangles a way to massacre Nick; smash his head while he bathes, hold him underwater to ensure drowning and then:
… We would break the door down…call the doctor…I got the idea from a piece in the paper…
Frank and Cora imagine a flawless execution, a pastoral-like return to the diner and a sudden customer surge into profitability. But, the scheme is foiled; because of his temporary amnesia Nick never suspects either to be his killer.
Frank leaves; Frank returns.
The second time they fill Nick with alcohol, and–in the midst of a Malibu drive–Frank slaughters him. In an intricate series of episodes, Cora and Frank are accused of the crime, remanded to jail, briefly, represented—hurriedly–by a smarmy lawyer, and acquitted.
Cain, a Chestertonian, fashioned Postman 78 years ago. Respected by a gaggle of writers such as Tom Wolfe, it now has a long-term position of distinction in American letters. The Modern Library includes it on its “100 Best Novels List.”
The Postman Always Rings Twice
By James Cain
116pp. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (paper) $13.00