The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain (1934)

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

Love, when you get fear in it, it’s not love any more. It’s hate.”

Frank Chambers has always been a drifter. He’s never found anything worth staying in one place for, until the day he stumbles into a roadside diner and sees Cora Papadakis working the grill. Though their chemistry is undeniable, so is her husband, Nick. There seems to be one easy way to solve their problem, but for Frank and Cora, murder is just the beginning.

For those who find elaborate locked-room mysteries unrealistic, James M. Cain poses the opposite question: What happens when two idiots try to commit the stupidest murder imaginable? The Postman Always Rings Twice is really two books in one. It starts out dumb and sleazy, before turning into a surprisingly ingenious trap that only squeezes tighter the more Frank and Cora struggle to escape it. That second part is worth the price of admission on its own, but the lead-up is a little too sordid for me.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain In a book this terse, there’s no time to waste. No sooner has Frank gotten an eyeful of Cora than he accepts a job at the diner, where he is so overcome by lust that he can’t even keep his food down. “Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” The fact that he works for her husband Nick, and likes him, does not bother Frank at all. Indeed, the kind and innocent Nick is the only likable character in the book. The only person who doesn’t love him is his wife, who finds his Greek heritage distasteful. Early on, she blows up at Frank for suggesting she might be Mexican. Frank knows why she is so offended at the thought—“It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.” Charming. Soon, the two acknowledge their attraction (i.e., Frank mashes Cora’s lips in for her) and start to dimly consider how Nick might be gotten out of the way.

However, the same lack of impulse control that draws Cora and Frank into an affair to begin with also threatens to derail their murder plot. This luckless pair plunges into a comedy of errors they are ill-equipped to handle. When they attempt to plot a locked-room murder in the best detective story tradition, it feels all wrong. If you or I tried to pull off a John Dickson Carr-style impossible crime in real life, it would probably play out exactly like this, with a victim who doesn’t cooperate with the timetable, unreliable technology, nosy neighbors, and a cat that won’t leave the evidence alone.

The early part of Postman isn’t always much fun because it involves stupid people doing stupid things. It becomes much more entertaining when Frank and Cora start having to deal with people who are actually intelligent; to their indignation, they are in danger of becoming pawns in other people’s games. And game is the right word. Everyone else seems to be having a lot fun with Frank and Cora’s situation. Their crisis becomes someone else’s puzzle, or even just a bad joke, triggering a domino effect of fear and betrayal in the easily confused couple.

The relationship between Frank and Cora also grows more thoughtful as they must convince themselves they share a deep enough bond to justify the sins they’ve committed. After all, Cora points out, she’s no “hell cat.” She’s really a good person. And a good person like her would only consider murder in the service of a great love. Even Frank, who has fewer illusions, spends a long time trying to sort out his feelings about Cora.

What did she have that makes me feel that way about her? I don’t know. She wanted something, and she tried to get it. She tried all the wrong ways, but she tried. I don’t know what made her feel that way about me, because she knew me. She called it on me plenty of times, that I wasn’t any good. I never really wanted anything, but her. But that’s a lot. I guess it’s not often that a woman even has that.

However much Frank and Cora speak of love, though, it’s clear from the start that, for them, sex and violence are intermingled. Their moments of passion are frenzied and brutal, the wounds they inflict upon each other foreshadowing the savagery to come. Murder seems like a natural extension of their brutal sexuality, an ecstatic peak that can never again be reached. The reason it’s so difficult to convince themselves that they are killing for love is because it is actually the other way around—the murder is not a means to an end, but an end in itself, a perverse consummation of their affair.

“We’re chained to each other, Cora,” Frank tells her. “We thought we were on top of a mountain. That wasn’t it. It’s on top of us, and that’s where it’s been ever since that night.” The Postman Always Rings Twice begins as the unpleasant tale of a seamy affair before ending up in some unexpected places. Its two illicit lovers learn that there’s no such thing as getting away with murder—it’s only a question of how and when it catches up with you.

Second Opinions

Crime Fiction Lover

This classic novel by James Cain is full of flawed people, violence, lurid sex, bad choices and doomed people. It’s one of the earliest examples of noir and a book that was both successful and notorious when it was published in 1934. Despite its age, The Postman Always Rings Twice still holds up and is something that any fan of this edgier type of crime fiction should read.

Library of Congress Blog

How The Postman Always Rings Twice got its “sort of crazy” name.

Availability

The Postman Always Rings Twice is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.

The 1946 film version is available for streaming rental. It’s very effective, though, as befits a glossy MGM production starring Lana Turner, it scrubs away much of the book’s grime.

A more recent film adaptation was made in 1981, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, also available for streaming rental. I haven’t seen this one, but it is reportedly more faithful to the book.


8 thoughts on “The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain (1934)

  1. Cain’s own Double Indemnity is a similar concept explored in a more satisfying way, to my way of thinking — there the scheme is sharper and the people executing it a bit more cognitively astute — but I do think you raise the exact point Cain was trying to explore with this, even if it does make it a slightly unsatisfying experience.

    For a similar idea explored far more enjoyably (that is…so not the word I want), I recommend the work of Jim Thompson, who was the doyen of the losers-trying-to-improve-their-lives-through-violent-crime-and-then-stuffing-it-up-with-appalling-consequences sub-sub-sub-sub-genre. Cain, for my money, never hit the heights of Double Indemnity a second time, but Thompson found myriad ways to explore that ground in a way that was fresh, invigorating, shocking, and heartbreaking time and time and time again. See The Killer Inside Me, Nothing More Than Murder, or After Dark, My Sweet for best results.

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    1. While reading this, I often felt irritated by the early, dumber sections, but it’s really grown on me since. Cain accomplishes a lot with a short length and deceptively simple writing style. I also agree that the author was doing exactly what he intended with this story–the Library of Congress article about the origins of the title shows that Cain was someone with a very specific point of view who was really willing to dig in his heels rather than compromise his vision. He’s trying to reproduce the capriciousness of real life, and that’s not always a satisfying narrative.

      Thanks for recommending Jim Thompson. I read a bunch of his books years ago and then sort of forgot about him, which he really does not deserve! Thompson is like the poet laureate of bottom-feeders making bad choices.

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      1. “The capriciousness of real life” is a perspective on Cain that I wish someone had expressed in my presence before, because it makes his less satisfying works — Mildred Pierce, Root of His Evil, Serenade, Rainbow’s End — make a damn sight more sense. Hell, I might have to revisit him now, because I was always fixated on the way his plots fell apart…but you’re right that the plot isn’t the thing. Reading DI first (plus my own plot-based fixations) hopefully allows this gigantic oversight on my part.

        And it’s ways a delight to encounter another Jim Thompson fan. That man deserves far more recognition than he gets; hell, I’d be tempted to start another blog exclusively about his work if I had the time.

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  2. I recommend the very first film adaptation, the 1943 “Ossessione” directed by Luchino Visconti. Better than the two Hollywood vehicles, in my opinion.

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  3. I agree that Visconti’s Ossessione is the best film version. Funnily enough, the Rafelson version plays as the opposite of what you described. The first half is stunning and then it falls apart once the smart people arrive.

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    1. Interesting about the 1981 adaptation! Sounds like all of these film versions have very different things to offer. I always find it fascinating to see what various filmmakers respond to in a book.

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  4. I do agree with you that there is an interesting and unexpected tone shift part way through that sends this story in a slightly different direction (prior to that I think it plays with the inevitable – we know that Frank will stay, will act on his attraction, etc). I love the simplicity of the problem in the second half – it is an obvious one that plays on a familiar psychological concept but it uses it really well, selling why it messes everything up for the pair.
    The book has obviously become something of a classic and the core ideas have been utilized and reworked by several other authors. Frederic Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread manages to be even seedier than this but clearly uses the same ideas, directly referencing one of the most memorable moments of this book.
    Laura Lippman’s Sunburn reworks it a little less literally, using some of the core points but spinning a different sort of story. The Cora-equivalent character is much more the focus of the book and gets a richer backstory. It isn’t as taut a work as Cain’s (few writers are quite so economical) but the characters are interesting and the twist on the premise is clever.
    I share JJ’s enjoyment of Thompson and would agree that his books frequently present characters resembling Frank – drifters and losers who roll the dice and lose.

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