82 of 89 people found the following review helpful
I spent some time trying to find out why this potboiler turned literature is called "The Postman Always Rings Twice" since at no place in the novel is a postman even mentioned. At first I thought it might be an echo of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, dreamt up by Knopf, Cain's publisher, to lend some literary pretension to a novel they weren't sure about; but that play wasn't written until some years after Postman was published in 1934. It was recently suggested to me (by Joseph Feinsinger, one of Amazon.com's best reviewers of literature) that it might be a rejoinder for the saying "opportunity knocks only once," which was the sort of pabulum given to out of work people during the depression. Cain's original title was "Bar-B-Que," which is entirely appropriate for a couple of reasons (the café, the burning car), but was perhaps a little too morbid for Knopf's sensibilities.
At any rate, 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. Re-reading the novel today one wonders why, but then again, I can see why.
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 that made even some of the icons of literature sit up and take notice. Edmund Wilson, long the dean of American literary critics, was intrigued by the novel, as was Franklin P Adams who called it "the most engrossing, unlaydownable book that I have any memory of." (Quoted from Paul Skenazy's critical work, James M. Cain (1989), pp. 20-21). And Albert Camus said that his internationally famous masterpiece The Stranger was based in part on Postman. The alternate English title, "The Outsider," perhaps reveals its debt to Cain more clearly. Today the sex seems rather tame and the terse style seems almost a burlesque, having been so often imitated. I personally think that Cain, who was a one-time editor of The New Yorker and a relatively sophisticated literary man, was actually taking Hemingway's primer-prose style to its logical conclusion by simply cutting out all of Hemingway's poetic repetitions and anything else that didn't move the plot.
Well, how well does this stand up after almost seventy years? It was made into two movies, a 1946 version starring John Garfield and Lana Turner and a 1981 version starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, which you might want to compare. You can read the novel faster than you can watch either movie. I read it in an hour and I'm no speed reader. There was also a play and, believe it or not, an opera. The atmosphere is suburban naturalistic, set in the environs of Glendale, California, just north of L.A. where there really are (or mostly were) oak trees. (The name of the café is the Twin Oaks.) The story is a little confused in parts, and a little unlikely elsewhere (Cora really would not be such an adept at gun toting, and the Frank would not be so quick to fall for the D.A.'s line of chatter and turn on Cora, nor could Nick be quite so blind to the hanky-panky going on behind his back). But what Cain got so, so very right was the underlying psychology. This is a classic triangle, the old guy with the resources who can't cut the mustard anymore with a young wife who longs for love, a little excitement and to be rid of "that greasy Greek." Even deeper (and this is characteristic of Cain) is the suggestion that Nick encouraged Frank and kept him around, using his presence to spice up his own libido. Furthermore, Frank is a kind of depression-era anti-hero, who beat up on the hated railway dicks, the kind of guy who has become a film noir staple, a man who acts out his basic desires in an amoral, animalistic way. I see woman. I take woman. I eat when I'm hungry, drink when I'm dry, and sleep when I run out of gas, a kind of natural man on the run, the kind of guy we think we would like to be for a change (a brief change) in our daydreams around two p.m. on a blue Monday afternoon.
Cain followed this up with Double Indemnity (using some insurance fraud research he had left over). Double Indemnity appeared as a serial in Liberty magazine after being rejected by Redbook. It was also made into a classic Billy Wilder movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson in 1944 a year after it finally appeared in book form.
Cain, along with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Nathanael West and later Ross MacDonald created a kind of southern California milieu that Hollywood has mined again and again with such postmodern films as, e.g., Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997). Read this (during lunch) for its historical value as a precursor of film noir and the hard-boiled detective novel.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Novels and other Fictions"
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2001
Whenever the question of the origin of the "hardboiled" school of detective literature comes up in conversation, three names always get mentioned: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James Cain. Hammett was the master of the character, Chandler of the atmosphere.
And Cain was the master of the plot. Not in the sense of trying to tease us with the "whodunit" like the great British talespinners; Cain's books are not mysteries in the true sense of the word, because we usually know almost from the outset Who Done It. But Cain will keep you on the edge of your seat following the incredible turns of fate that his characters experience. And perhaps that's the key to Cain, not only in this book but in all of his others: the real major character is an unfriendly fate, which sooner or later destroys the protagonists. Cain's stories are ugly - his characters are all either ugly and stupid or ugly and clever - and perhaps this is the ugliest story he ever wrote.
Hollywood was always both fascinated and repulsed by Cain; Warner Brothers made "Double Indemnity" into a movie, but only after they turned it over to Rayond Chandler to do the screenplay and "sanitize" it (Billy Wilder got screenplay credits along with Chandler, but the book was Cain's; it's more than worth a read too). "Postman" has been made into a movie twice, and while both versions are admirable each in their own way, neither one of them manages to express the utter futility of life, and the sense of just how amoral the average man can be in the right situation, that are the hallmarks of Cain's work.
I think it's not the sex in his novels (of which there is some, but tame stuff by modern standards) that made Cain unsettling in his day, but rather this sense of futility, and that is why Hollywood, and society in general, had a hard time accepting Cain as a mainstream writer. Great? Yes. Give him a read - it's like watching a train wreck. It's horrible, but you can't take your eyes off it.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2001
When I was 12 I climbed on board something called The Texas Cliffhanger at Six Flags Over Texas. It was a small four or five person bench with a cage around it that lifted us something like five stories into the air. Then it pushed us forward and dropped us. The entire ride lasted maybe a minute, but I never forgot it and I by God knew I’d had a thrill. The Postman Always Rings Twice is no different. It is wild and one of the shortest novels I’ve ever read. But believe me, I know I’ve read a novel.
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.
I believe this novel started a whole line of fiction and movies that continues to this day. First and most obvious, the noir genre has its roots here. The colloquial speech, the first person narrative, the looker dames who are in where they ought not be – it’s all here. Second, the love triangle involving a drifter and a young woman married or indentured to an older, wealthy man....
I’d recommend this one wholeheartedly. Not just for its place in literary history, but for the pure joy of a good read. Lie back and let it take you for a quick thrill.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2009
If you're a fan of the film "Mildred Pierce," you'll be surprised by the book. No one gets murdered, and with few exceptions only the names of the characters haven't been changed. The plot unfolds in an entirely different fashion.
It is a good read and would make a good movie true to the book's plot. If some would-be movie writer or producer is reading this, get the book, read it, and make the real "Mildred Pierce." She's just as fascinating as the movie Mildred.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2002
Unlike the detective fiction of Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade, James M. Cain's brand of noir in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is concerned more with the drama behind the crime than with the investigation of it.
The novel begins with a flurry of premonitions: A dangerous young drifter named Frank Chambers stops for a bite to eat at a California roadside lunchroom owned by an affable but naive Greek named Nick Papadakis and his much younger, beautiful wife Cora. Frank accepts a job offer from Nick and almost immediately begins an affair with Cora, who confides to Frank that Nick disgusts her and she feels trapped in her marriage. She suggests that the only way out is to kill Nick, and Frank, who really doesn't have anything personal against his new boss, decides to go along with it.
After a false start, Frank and Cora finally manage to carry out their crime, although not without a significant amount of bodily sacrifice. Of course they tell the police that Nick's death was an accident, but the District Attorney is suspicious of the circumstances -- particularly when it is discovered that Nick had a considerable insurance policy on his life. From this point on, Cain uses the principle of poetic justice to ensure that Frank and Cora pay for their crime through their arrogance and foolishness.
Frank, Cora, and Nick make an interesting love triangle. Situations in their lives seem to have brought them together partially because of their relative stupidity -- for a guy who's spent his life on the road, Frank shows he even lacks street smarts when he gets suckered by an obvious pool shark; indeed, a story like this relies on fundamentally stupid characters. Nick, of course, never suspects his wife is having an affair; he's just a simple immigrant who's proud and grateful to be living the American dream of owning his own business. The smartest character turns out to be Cora's lawyer, Katz, who probably guesses the truth about Nick's "accident" right away but knows he'll make out like a bandit no matter what happens to his client.
The characterization, mood, and style of this novel reveal the source of noir fiction: When the corruption and violence of the '20s erupted into the squalor and desperation of the Depression of the '30s, noir must have emerged naturally as the time's most representative artistic expression. Here we have characters who are so poor and hopeless that they're desperate enough to do anything and violent enough to turn to crime.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This novel comes on strong and the pace doesn't let up until the final paragraph. It's a burner in all of 116 pages, and I had it done in about 90 minutes.
Synopsis: A drifter stumbles into a L. A. area diner to find a hottie who thinks the world will open for her with her husband dead. Complications ensue.
The writing is simple and straightforward, in the first person past, very colloquial (for the early 1930s). The story is simple and straightforward, but there is a lot of space for the reader to explore. There is an awful lot going on between Frank and Cora that goes unsaid, and it's up to you to figure out which way it might go, before it very quickly does. It's two shallow, selfish, impulsive and not-that-bright people coming up with plans that fit themselves perfectly, and it doesn't go well.
Frank is a fast mover, itinerant and restless, and Cora has dreams and designs of success and contentment unburdened by thoughts of preparation or achievement. Both are after something better, although neither knows what that might look like. Their collision is hot stuff, right from the eighth page. The novel was tried for obscenity in Boston but that was more than 80 years ago, and by today's standards this is all relatively tame, prime-time content, both the sex and the violence (there are some fun, saucy plays on the word "hard"). This book is suitable for high schoolers, and is the seminal example of American noir writing.
Reading through this, I couldn't help but think of Blood Simple]. Move this novel to Texas, and you've got almost the same thing. Mix sex, money and murder and trust goes out the window.
And do I detect a cynical commentary on the dubious promise of the American dream? Doomed husband Nick is a naturalized immigrant, so happy in his new land, his demeanor and carriage portrayed as provincial, sweet and endearing, implying ignorance. This doesn't help him at all in a modern, mechanized, interwar America.
Bottom line: This is fundamental 20th century American writing, a genre-defining novel, and you should pick it up and read it. It's easy, the story is compelling and fun.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2004
This is a book you read once and can't stop thinking about. It's what I call a 'blue book', one that is soulful and strangely mellow. It actually makes me feel like I'm underneath a very shady tree on a sunny day. Reason being that the light is very blue green, so a 'blue' book.
Before I try to make sense of this, let's continue.
Frank Chambers is a young drifter who rolls into town, goes to work in a diner for Nick, a tough Greek, falls for Nick's young wife Cora, then decides, with Cora's help, to murder Nick and take over the restaurant. What should be simple becomes more complex. The first murder attempt fails, the second one is successful but easy to see through. With the help of a very smart and very crooked lawyer, both Frank and Cora are soon free. That, really, is where the problems start.
Frank and Cora love and hate each other fiercely, speaking with remarkably accurate, real dialogue. Cain doesn't even attribute his dialogue, so pay close attention to who's speaking. The book is mostly just people talking, in very real language, full of slang and fragmented sentences. It's like listening to a REALLY interesting conversation.
Frank and Cora are two very small, unremarkable, inconsequential people caught up in something too big for them to understand. They mistake happiness and hope for lust, hate, anger and even apathy. And just when things look alright, one little, honest accident washes it all away. This book shows us how fragile everything is, or at least how fragile it can be. That's what elevates this to the level of tragedy. This is something to live with and dwell upon, something you can never quite shake off, no matter how hard you try.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
James M. Cain, along with Chandler and Hammett, really created the literary genre which would be turned into film noir. One revels in the image of Cain, who was himself an insurance adjustor, sitting at his desk dreaming up the perfect murders which form the basis of his novels.
In Postman, Frank Chambers interrupts his cross country rambling at a diner owned by Nick Papadakis after getting one look at Nick's wife, Cora. That first look conveys everything we need to know about the relationship between men and women in noir fiction, "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."
Frank and Cora become lovers and are soon plotting to murder Nick, but find they don't trust one another and "Love, once you get fear in it, turns to hate."
As the novel closes, Frank is on Death Row. One of the other inmates theorizes about the sub-conscious and how he's not responsible for his crime. But Frank says, "To hell with the sub-conscious. I don't believe it. It's just a lot of hooey, that this guy thought up so he could fool the judge. You know what you're doing and you do it." This is another quintessential element of American noir--the "heroes" are not victims of the psyche; they are knowing actors & when the time inevitably comes to pay for their sins, they accept punishment stoically, knowing that they deserve it for their evil deeds. There's an important lesson here, as we close the Century which saw a sustained assault by the partisans of Freud and Marx upon the notion of personal responsibility.
To quote the immortal philosopher Baretta, "don't do the crime, if you can't do the time."
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This novel was another stunner from Cain. Set out in a then country area of California, outside of LA in the early 1940s, most of the action takes place at a diner on the main highway. This too involves a wife very unhappy with her husband, Cora with Nick. She finds a possible way out of her life with this brutish husband when drifter Frank comes into the diner and hangs around doing odd jobs for them. The couple plot to kill Nick so that they can end up with the diner and each other. There was one movie version done by John Garfield and Lana Turner in the 1940s that was absolutely faithful to the book. There was a 2nd version in the 1980s with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange that deviated somewhat from the novel, especially towards the end. I enjoyed both film versions equally and would highly recommend them. A Cain novel is very hard to put down once you've started and the man used no excess words. He too was an expert at looking at the best and worst of people as brought out by crime and its punishment.
Visit my blog with link given on my profile page here or use this phonetically given URL (livingasseniors dot blogspot dot com). Friday's entry will always be weekend entertainment recs from my 5 star Amazon reviews in film, tv, books and music. These are very heavy on buried treasures and hidden gems. My blogspot is published on Monday, Wednesday & Friday.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2004
This is a book that never gives you a chance to catch your breath. More happens in 116 pages in this book than in most 500-page novels that I have read. James Cain doesn't mess around with flowery prose or deep narrative insights into the characters or the period or anything else. His writing is strictly minimalist, and that gives this book its raw, gritty feeling. You don't learn much about what's going on from some detached, third-person narrator. Instead, you get up close and personal with the characters themselves, who are all complex and fascinating.
Much of this book is dialog, often extending for pages without even a "he said" or "she said" interspersed between lines. Cain has a real gift for getting at the heart of his characters through dialog. The voices of the characters are so expressive that you really don't need much narration to get a good sense of what these people are all about.
At the heart of this story is an illicit love affair and a murder. There is an uncomfortable tension throughout the book, so strong that I wanted to put the book down at times to wipe the sweat off my forehead and let my pulse return to a normal rate.