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