The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

98.The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a hundred pages of sinewy prose. Published in 1934 – a peak period in the evolution of the hardboiled crime genre –the book signaled the literary arrival of journalist, James M. Cain, who came to be known as the father of fiction noir. While Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler had already perfected the detective stories that came to define the hardboiled niche, Cain wrote from the other side, foregoing tales of investigators solving crimes, preferring, instead, to center his stories around tramps (and their femme fatales) committing them. While the sordid nature of his stories was shocking to some – The Postman Always Rings Twice was banned for “obscenity” in Boston and Canada – the amorality was merely a reflection of the social upheaval America had already undergone. With unemployment a whopping 25% in 1933, popular sentiment was a nasty brew of outrage (at the banks) and desperate impatience (with the government's failure to help; the first New Deal initiatives were only beginning to be implemented in 1933 ). With materialistic mores of the roaring '20s no longer suited to the realities of Depression-era life, people began to question the values associated with capitalist progress and consumption . As capitalist democracies crumbled into fascist bastions all over Europe, Americans projected their own disillusionment and dissatisfaction onto a slew of celebrity criminals. John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker – all household names, lauded as righteous rebels and Robin-Hoodesque rebalancers of wealth. With such pervasive idealization of the outlaw, it's little wonder that A Postman Always Rings Twice, with its criminal anti-hero – a feature that would come to characterize the noir genre – was a popular success. 

Frank Chambers, an out-of-work drifter, has just returned to California, from a binge in Tiajuana, stowed away on the back of a hay truck. He's discovered and left to find his own way, not too far from a run-of-the-mill, diner/gas bar called Twin Oaks. As hungry as he is sly, Frank tries to scam himself a meal, but the proprietor, Nick Papadakis, knows a hustle when he sees one. However, Nick also needs a hired hand; for some reason, he can't seem to keep them. Perhaps he's a poor judge of character, perhaps it's the mundane work. But more likely, than not, it's the ignominy involved in working for an immigrant – a Greek – like Nick. Whatever the reason, his hired men never last, and Nick figures a man who is in need of a free meal is a man in need of a job. Frank, however, is not that desperate – he doesn't want to work – and he has no intention of accepting Nick's offer – until he sees Nick's sultry sex-pot wife, Cora, that is. And so Frank decides to kick around for a bit, see how far he can get with her. As it turns out, marrying an immigrant has given corn-fed Cora some issues, and it's not long before the pair are steaming up cars and tangling up sheets as they greedily satisfy their lust. 
Cora is miserable, and murder is the only way she out of her marriage. Although Frank has initial misgivings, he goes along with it anyway. Their first attempt is a failure (thanks to surprise cameos by a cat and a cop). Thankfully, for them, Nick recovers with amnesia, and can't remember they tried to pop him off. 
For Frank, Nick's convalescence is the perfect opportunity to hit the road, but Cora isn't cut out for life as a drifter; they don't get far before Cora turns around and goes home. Frank continues on, but he isn't gone long before he returns with a hankering for Cora. As chance would have it, Frank is only in the neighbourhood for few hours before he runs into Nick. Although a little peeved that Frank, like the other hired men, left him, Nick is genuinely glad to see him. He immediately sets about convincing Frank to come back to work and invites him along on a trip to San Francisco, hoping to persuade him to stay on the trip. However, Cora is beside herself; Nick thinks it high-time they had a kid. She's desperate; it's now or never - and Frank agrees the trip is the perfect time to try their hand, again, at murder.  This time,  they're successful. 
After a series of legal twists and turns (and betrayals), the couple is cleared of all guilt and released – with $10,000 of insurance money, to boot. They have six months to kill; Cora is forbidden to leave the state as part of her probation. Restless, Frank is chomping at the bit; he wants to hit the road. But that six months is showing Cora that she has what it takes to improve and build Twin Oaks. A wedge increasingly divides the couple, until Cora admits she is pregnant, and Frank resolves to change his ways and settle down. They marry at City Hall and head for out for a day at the beach, to celebrate. However, during a swim, Cora feels ill. As Frank is rushing her to the hospital, there is an accident. Cora is killed; Frank is convicted of her murder and sentenced to death. 

This is a slim book and the action is fast, but the intricacy of ideas here is an astonishing testament to the potency of measured prose. The book was published during a time of serious misgivings regarding capitalism and Cain cunningly wove pertinent thematic threads (entrepreneurial spirit, ambition, the pursuit of wealth, the nature of success) into a tapestry of scandal; all the sordid details (the adultery, the murder, the failure of the justice system) stem from ambition and/or the pursuit of wealth. 
Consider Nick. He is the American dream, personified. A hard-working immigrant, his belly bursts with entrepreneurial spirit; he sulks at the thought of Frank taking credit for a sign and won't stand for anyone undercutting him on gas. A moderately successful business man, in his silk shirts and suits, his is a story told in documents – naturalization certificate, business license, marriage certificate – all relegated to a scrapbook adorned with American flags and eagles, and curlicues and squiggles in red, white and blue. His suits are just fine enough to score him the finest prize of assimilation - an American wife. 
Cora is a smart girl; she has no delusions. As she, so soberly puts it, “You spend two years in a Los Angeles hash house and you'll take the first guy that's got a gold watch.” She wants what she's been socialized to want - “to be something”, “to amount to something” – but she soon learns that all roads don't lead to success, and those that do, aren't open to everyone. An Iowan beauty queen, Cora moves to California fully prepared to capitalize on her looks, and while she hopes to catch a break in Hollywood, she recognizes quickly that that road is not for her. In her world, little opportunity is left, but marriage.

Their marriage, although loveless, should be mutually satisfying. Each is getting something they want: Cora attests to the extent of Nick's assimilation; Nick gives Cora some social leverage as an entrepreneur's wife. But Cora can't help but feel cheated; she's given more than she's gained – her self-respect and what little social power she had as an American-born white (Cora Smith to Cora Papadakis) for the privilege of cooking and cleaning in her husband's diner (rather than someone else's). The imbalance in this equation makes her desperate, and the thought of bearing “greasy” half-Greek children pushes her over the edge. 
It's her deep-seeded ambition, her desire “to be something”, that causes Cora to marry a man she doesn't love, and as the strength of Frank's attachment to her becomes apparent, Cora can't fail to see as a new road opening up . While murdering Nick, might bind her to Frank, Frank wants nothing from her, but her. No money. No property. Just her. If she's stuck with him, so be it; she'll be the one in control. No doubt, their initial tryst was was born of desire, but it's Cora's ambitious calculation that allows it to continue and pushes Frank to murder. 
“You talk as if it's alright.” [Frank says about her homicidal suggestion]
“Who's going to know if it's alright or not, but you and me?”
It's as if she knows she has little to fear from the justice system, for in this world, justice is meted out, not by considerations of right and wrong, but by insurance companies dodging payouts.  Here, the winning side, is the one with more (numerous, effective) insurance investigators; the side that has the most money to lose. And, it's this mercenary hijacking of the justice system that sets Cora and Frank free.

The ambition, the greed, the corruption. Capitalist ills from which is born much of the scandal in this book. And so, it should only be expected, that Frank, a drifter with no property and no desire to trade his labour on the market – the antithesis of a capitalist – would meet his end after embroiling himself with such an ambitious and entrepreneurial pair as Nick and Cora. Perhaps it's naivete (or blind lust) that leads him to believe his attachment to Cora need not weigh him down. But it's evident from the start – she's no drifter and he's no entrepreneur. And as he tugs at her to sell Twin Oaks to tramp the trails with him, she barrells him down with her expansions and improvements. As the business prospers, Cora's feet are firmly fixed, while Frank is sick of it staying put, sick of the very Americaness of it,  so sick of “hot dogs and beer and apple pie with cheese on the side”, he could “heave it all in the river.”  Yet, he has a chance to escape - to Nicaragua to trap pumas. But he can't go through with it. 

This return is to be his final surrender. He is beaten, ready to bow for the yoke, and play by the rules of the system. As they go for a post-nuptial swim in  the ocean:

We started back, and on the way in I swam down. I went down nine feet. I could tell it was nine feet, by the pressure. Most of these pools are nine feet, and it was that deep. I whipped my legs together and shot down further. It drove in on my ears, so I thought they would pop. But I didn't have to come up. The pressure on your lungs drives the oxygen in your blood, so for a few seconds you don't think about your breath. I looked at the green water. And with my ears ringing and that weight on my back and chest, it seemed to me all the devilment and meanness, and shiftlessness, and no account stuff in my life had been pressed out and washed off, and I was ready to start out with her again clean, do like she said, have a new life.

However, not more than hour after this cleansing rebirth, he's on his way to jail. Too little to late? Perhaps. Or maybe he shouldn't even have tried to change his ways at all.


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