98. The Postman Always Rings Twice

Yeah, See, It’s a Good Book, See
Modern Library # 98

1934, James M. Cain

“Economy of words.” That’s the phrase my 11th grade English teacher taught me regarding the works of Ernest Hemingway, perhaps my favorite author. I’m a lazy reader by nature, so perhaps that’s why this terse, direct style of writing appeals to me. Whatever the reason, it works. Cain’s tiny novella is “economic” to the extreme, and it is very effective.

It’s effective because the story itself is fast moving and angry. Dashiell Hammett (another author of the same type and period) has a blurb on the cover of my paperback edition; “A good, swift, violent story,” and he is spot on. Frank Chambers, a Depression era drifter, happens upon a kindly bumbling Greek (Nick Papadakis) at his diner outside of Los Angeles — which was “country” back then. Nick wants him to work there and Frank is hesitant… Until he sees Nick’s young wife. Lust overcomes Frank and he accepts the work, if only to bang Nick’s wife, Cora.

In no time, he violently takes her (willingly) and they begin a torrid secret affair. They plot to commit the perfect murder, it fails, but they get away with it. Nick recovers, the lovers plot again, and this time they succeed. Cain employs some clever twists as Frank and Cora deal with the cops, lawyers, and insurance companies. In only a few days time, the illicit couple is not only free, but ten grand richer. Of course, now that they are alone, their relationship hits some potholes — as one would guess would happen to a murderous, lustful, violent, somewhat primal couple as these two. Frank cheats on Cora, they have different goals in life, they fight, they bang. Good stuff.

Cora gets pregnant, Frank promises to settle down, they go for a swim, Frank drives the rented Ford into a wall, Cora dies, Frank is sent to the gallows. Just like that. I make it sound silly and juvenile, but one must take into account that this book is “important” because it was the first of its kind; the roman noir. Hundreds of hack writers emulated Cain’s original style, but this was the original… It also spawned the entire Film Noir genre, from the 40′s all the way up to the recent LA Confidential. In 1934, the eroticism brought censors to their knees. Albert Camus credits Postman as his inspiration for The Stranger. Also, the book is written in that old school 1930′s vernacular that we associate with newsies and Al Capone. “Yeah, see, it is what it is, see. Where’s ya God now, Moses?”

So, about the title… There is no “Postman” mentioned in the story at all. My take on this is that “What goes around comes around,” more or less. You may escape “delivery” at some point in your miserable life, but not a second time. It could also be a play on the fact that stupid Nick got his bell rung not once, but twice. At any rate, nothing beats a Top 100 book I can read in 2 hours.

Hoang Completed: 2002, Rating: 5
Steve Completed: 2004, Rating: 7

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