Saturday, July 18, 2009

141. The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain

History: Published in 1934, the novel was quite successful and notorious upon publication, and is regarded as one of the more important crime novels of the 20th century. The title for The Postman Always Rings Twice came from a discussion he'd had with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. According to Cain, Lawrence spoke of the anxiety he felt when waiting for the postman to bring him news on a submitted manuscript. According to Cain, Lawrence noted that he would know when the postman had finally arrived because the postman always rang twice, and Cain then lit upon that phrase as a title for his novel. Upon discussing it further, the two men agreed such a phrase was metaphorically suited to Frank's situation at the end of the novel. With the "postman" being God, or Fate, the "delivery" meant for Frank was his own death as just retribution for murdering Nick. Frank had missed the first "ring" when he initially got away with that killing. However, the postman rang again, and this time the ring was heard, when Frank was wrongly convicted of having murdered Cora, and then sentenced to die for the crime. The theme of an inescapable fate is further underscored in the novel by The Greek's escape from death in the lovers' first murder attempt, only to be done in by their second one.
Plot: The story is narrated in the first person by Frank Chambers, a young drifter who stops at a rural California diner for a meal, and ends up working there. The diner is operated by a young, beautiful woman, Cora, and her much older husband, Nick Papadakis, sometimes called "The Greek". There is an immediate attraction between Frank and Cora, and they begin a passionate affair with sadomasochistic qualities (when they first embrace, Cora commands Frank to bite her lip, and Frank does so hard enough to draw blood from Cora's lips). Cora, a femme fatale figure, is tired of her situation, married to a man she does not love, and working at a diner that she wishes to own and improve. The Greek keeps a close eye on her, and is frequently abusive. Eventually, Frank and Cora scheme to murder the Greek in order to start a new life together without Cora losing the diner.
They plan on striking Nick's head and making it seem he fell and drowned in the bathtub. Cora fells Nick with a solid blow, but, due to a sudden power outage and the happenstance appearance of a policeman, the scheme is unsuccessful. Nick recovers and because of retrograde amnesia does not suspect that he narrowly avoided being killed. Still determined to kill Nick, Frank and Cora repeat the first plan, only in a car. Nick is plied with wine, then struck and killed, then they push the car over in a ravine, and the car is crashed. Frank hits Cora in the face to make it look like she was injured. And then accidentally, while Frank is fixing the car, it rolls over with him and he is injured as well. It seems as if they are going to get away with it, but the local prosecutor suspects what has actually occurred, but doesn't have enough evidence to prove it. He pursues them relentlessly. As a tactic intended to get Cora and Frank to turn on one another, he tries only Cora for the crime. Although they do turn against each other, a clever ploy from Cora's lawyer prevents Cora's full confession from coming into the hands of the prosecutor. With the tactic having failed to generate any new evidence for the prosecution, Cora ultimately accepts a lenient plea deal under which she is given a suspended sentence and no jail time. Frank and Cora eventually patch together their tumultuous relationship, and now plan for a future together. But as they seem to be prepared finally to live together, Cora dies in a car accident. Frank is arrested for the murder, by the same prosecuter. The book ends with Frank summarizing events that followed, explaining that he was convicted for Cora's murder and that the text is to be published after his execution.
Review: The title finally chosen is somewhat magical as is the novel itself, the first of Cain's hard-boiled, loser tales that somehow caught the imagination and psyche of depression America. First there's the raw sex with Frank forcing himself onto Cora, biting her lip, etc. and she loving it, that was somewhat shocking for its time. Ditto for the spontaneous sex they have in the dirt outside the car after Frank has beamed Nick. Then there is the fascination we have with stupid people doing vile deeds rather clumsily (with whom we might identify). But more than anything else it's the style. Cain raised the dime novel to something amazing with his no nonsense, no time to chat, no description beyond the absolutely necessary--a pared-down to raw flesh and bones writing style.
Not only is the book short, its pace rarely relents. There is not an overabundance of description or other literary devices. It slams the door, straps you in and drives you to the end. And you get there fast with no detours and no fluff and nothing extra, just the point. You rip right through piles of mistrust and angst and murder and love and passion and lies and truths and you end in reality. And for Cain, reality is a cold floor and a long walk and a knotted rope swinging in the wind.
Opening Line: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
Closing Line: “If you’ve got this far, send one up for me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is.”
Quotes: "The postman always rings twice."
Rating: Good

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