This morning I made a coffee and started reading James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Three cups later I had finished it.
What a debut!
For those unfamiliar, the story follows Frank, a handsome drifter who wanders into a roadside diner. You know the kind, “like a million others in California”. He just wants something to eat. Alongside his meal he gets a job offer from Nick, the jovial, naive and Greek (don’t forget that he’s Greek), owner. It’s a decent offer but Frank has other propositions. That is until he lays his eyes on Nick’s wife, Cora, whose lips stick out in a way that makes him “want to mash them for her”. He accepts the job and Cora begins to swoon. But the inconvenient husband stands in the way, to which there is one grim solution — death.
Cain tells the narrative in a confessional form that permeates suspense throughout, in a ‘will-they-do-it-and-get-away-with-it’ rather than a ‘whodunit’.
Published in 1934, The Postman Always Rings Twice is told from Frank’s perspective with all the prejudice and racial insensitivity of a working man in the post-depression USA. Where calling a white man a “Mex” is liable to earn you a swift punch and foreign characters are referred to exclusively by their nationalities.
Uncommon for the period are scenes that depict acts of sadomasochism, eroticism and brutal violence, laced throughout the book like skimpy lingerie on a femme fatale. These moments shocked me. It’s unsurprising that upon release, the book was banned in Boston and Canada.
Take, for example, the brutal image Frank is greeted by as he regains consciousness after a car crash.
“I began to moan from the awfulness of what I heard. It was like rain on a tin roof, but that it wasn’t. It was her blood, pouring down on the hood, where she went through the windshield.”
Or the sadomasochistic eroticism of Frank and Cora’s first sexual embrace.
“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.
These scenes are captured by Cain in concise, terse prose in a style shared by his contemporaries, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. All three have a unique penchant for painting scenes and capturing characters with sparse yet expressive language that writers have tried, with little success, to imitate since.
And characters are the pillars on which the novel stands. Cain’s flawed characters motivated by lust, greed and desire blow wind into the billowing sails of the story to propel it relentlessly forward.
Frank is an endearing scoundrel, a grifter who has been arrested in a dozen cities and is equally likely to get swindled as he is to do the swindling. He’s humorous and charming, a good guy with a habit of finding trouble. Someone I could imagine sharing a cold beer with on a hot summer afternoon. It is an ode to Cain’s characterisation that, while Frank constantly deceives and schemes, taunts and threatens, we can’t help but root for him.
“I’m talking about the road. It’s fun, Cora. And nobody knows it better than I do. I know every twist and turn it’s got. And I know how to work it, too. Isn’t that what we want? Just to be a pair of tramps, like we really are?”
Cora is an ex-beauty pageant winner from a small town who aimed for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood Boulevard but landed among the muddy coffee and runny eggs of an L.A. hash house. She escaped a life of destitution through marriage but ended up equally miserable. Her husband refers to her as “my little white dove”, and that’s what we come to see her as — a delicate bird confined by the marital cage, who craves freedom and passionate love.
“They gave me a test. It was all right in the face. But they talk, now. The pictures, I mean. And when I began to talk, up there on the screen, they knew me for what I was, and so did I. A cheap Des Moines trollop, that had as much chance in pictures as a monkey has. Not as much. A monkey, anyway, can make you laugh. All I did was make you sick.”
Frank loves Cora because she is a gorgeous, sullen, “hellcat” that is off-limits.
Cora loves Frank because he is handsome and mysterious and “not a little soft greasy guy with black kinky hair”.
The plot of the novel is driven by this desire for what they can’t have. If Frank and Cora kill Nick, they will be free to live together in perpetual happiness. They’re propelled into their murderous actions by lust and greed — and after one failed attempt, succeed.
Their wishes come true. And this is where the brilliance of the novel is revealed because the murder brings ramifications that reverberate through the character’s lives with the force of a gong on Chinese New Year.
They realise that there is no happily ever after. No fairytale ending. Life without the Greek isn’t the carefree picnic amongst rolling green meadows, with days spent making love and drinking and frolicking in the sun that they imagined. They have money and freedom and each other. All they desired. Yet they do nothing but bicker and fight and mistrust one another.
This is what Marvin Smith refers to as “the love rack”, and is one of the main themes of The Postman Always Rings Twice.
In ancient times a torture device was used to tie a victim by his hands and feet and pull their limbs simultaneously in two directions. The “love rack” replaces the physical ropes with the emotional bonds of love. The victim is pulled concurrently in two directions, wishing at once to cling to, and escape from, the object of his desire.
“The love rack” becomes the source of both pleasure and pain: the pleasure of being with the one you love and the pain the relationship brings.
Frank is immured by his physical lust to Cora, but at the same time, longs to be free of her.
Cora is confined by her physical lust for Frank but longs for the stability that Nick provided.
She voices her frustration after the Greek’s funeral, in a scene which epitomises the main theme of the novel — the cruel and inescapable fate that awaits those who commit heinous acts. Cora realises their relationship has rotted since the murder.
“look at us now. We were up on a mountain. We were up so high, Frank. We had it all, out there, that night. I didn’t know I could feel anything like that. And we kissed and sealed it so it would be there forever, no matter what happened. We had more than any two people in the world. And then we fell down. First you, then me. Yes, it makes it even. We’re down here together. But we’re not up high any more. Our beautiful mountain is gone.”
Frank doesn’t see the issue.
“We got away clean, and got $10,000 for doing the job. So God kissed us on the brow, did he? Then the devil went to bed with us, and believe you me, kid, he sleeps pretty good.”
The argument continues along those lines until they both concede and, in true noir style, find solace in bourbon. The scene ends with a notorious moment synonymous with the novel.
Frank pushes Cora onto the bed, slips off her blouse, and she says:
“Rip me, Frank. Rip me like you did that night.”
In this moment of twisted passion, we see a couple desperately grasping for the passion, love and emotion that swelled within them before killing Nick.
Cain, with trademark nonchalance, manages existential themes that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Shakespearean tragedy.
He manages to meditate on the disappointment that accompanies realised dreams, the disorder that comes through rapid change, and, most crucially, the cruel and inescapable consequences of fate on those who commit heinous actions.
All in just over 100 pages.
The inevitability of fate is alluded to by the book’s non-sequitur title. In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title comes from a conversation he had with the screenwriter, Vincent Lawrence, who spoke about the anxiety he felt when waiting for a postman to bring news about a submitted transcript. He would know when the postman arrived because he always rang twice. Lawrence described being so anxious that he would retreat to the backyard to avoid his ring. The tactic failed. Even from the backyard, if he failed to hear the first ring, he always heard the second. Always.
This conversation birthed a title that became a perfect metaphor for Frank and Cora’s situation.
“The Postman” is God, or, Fate who “delivers” punishment to Frank and Cora. Both missed the first “ring” when they got away with the initial killing. However, the postman’s second ring is inescapable; Frank is wrongly convicted of Cora’s murder and sentenced to death. The motif of inescapable fate is also evident in the Greek’s initial escape from death, only to succumb to the second attempt on his life.
Upon its release, The Postman Always Rings Twice delivered a tragic, savage and steamy story to audiences around the world. With crime fiction’s sustained popularity eighty-three years on, I encourage you to step up and answer the ring of this masterpiece.
Take this as a ringing endorsement and don’t wait for a second — you may regret it.