The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)

Very short, only 116 pages in this modern Orion edition. A first person narrative, told by 24 year-old drifter Frank Chambers, this is a dazzling, blistering, feverishly compelling novella, that rare thing, a book which I literally couldn’t put down but read from end to end in an intense two-hour sitting.

Now this feels like hard-boiled writing. Chandler is a dandy, with his romantic lead, Marlowe, and his wonderfully inventive style. Hammett’s milieu includes surprisingly educated, middle class people – the rich sect followers in Dain, all the cast of Falcon are educated types and his writing is often surprisingly mannered.

Postman is hard-core lowlife, written from the point of view of a hustler, a drifter, a small-time crook with a long record of stealing and violence. We are thrust immediately into his limited worldview where he is always looking for the next con and we never escape this airless, hopelessly constricted world. By contrast Hammett or Chandler’s protagonists fly like eagles in a world of order, rationality and bourgeois manners. Ned Beaumont is continually making small bows or being kind to old Mrs Madvig. No-one is kind in Postman. It is a hustler’s-eye view of the world.

I caught a ride to San Bernadino. It’s a railroad town, and I was going to hop a freight east. But I didn’t do it. I ran into a guy in a poolroom, and began playing him one ball in the side. He was the greatest job in the way of a sucker that God ever turned out, because he had a friend that could really play. The only trouble with him was, he couldn’t play good enough. I hung around with the pair of them a couple of weeks, and took $250 off them, all they had, and then I had to beat it out of town quick. (Chapter 6)


Chambers hitches down the road to a diner-cum-garage and immediately starts conning the owner, Nick Papadakis. Papadakis offers him the job of mechanic and the second he sees Nick’s wife, Cora, he is hit by lust. Not love. Hard, physical lust, so hard it makes him throw up his dinner. By quick stages he seduces Cora who is sick of her husband. She won a beauty pageant in Iowa and came out to California to make her rep, but like so many others failed in movies and quickly ended up working in a hash bar, and when the Greek proposed to her, was grateful to escape.

Two small town losers with pitifully tragic yearnings to escape their cages. They have sex in his bedroom, in the car on the way back from shopping trips, hard physical sex. No wonder the book ran into trouble with the censors and was banned in some states. From their wish to be together quickly evolves the idea of killing the Greek.

They try it one night by her sapping him in the bath, then pushing him under to make him drown, while Frank stands guard outside the closed diner. It is a nailbitingly tense scene and at exactly the wrong moment a motorbike cop comes along and pulls in. They do the coshing but then chicken out of the drowning, make it look like an accident. While Nick is in hospital they have sex every night in the big marriage bed. Then the Greek comes home and Cora is overcome with disgust and Frank abruptly leaves, hitching down the line, pulling cons in towns, hustling punters at pool.

But Fate, a Greek tragic Destiny, intervenes to make Nick spot Frank in the street and beg him to come back, insisting – unwittingly – on his own death, for now Frank and Cora, reunited, their lust rekindled, make a more elaborate plan to kill Nick, and go through with it, with a whole string of unforeseen consequences…

The Law

While keeping Chambers’ low-life perspective, a big chunk of the second half of the book consists of the court case against the couple. Anyone with any childish view that the Law is about finding Justice would be quickly disabused: here the Law is a playground for two sharp lawyers to exploit the full complexities of the case simply to win. To emphasise the game element, Cain has the guilty couple’s lawyers making a $100 bet with the prosecution attorney, a bet he triumphantly wins and which means more to him than his fee.

The case against revolves around the revelation that Nick had taken out $10,000 life insurance just days before his murder. For the prosecution this looks childishly simple; buy life insurance for husband; kill him; claim life insurance. Frank is thunderstruck, he knew nothing about it; he and Cora are in a cleft stick because they can’t say, We knew nothing about the insurance when we murdered him. But their lawyer, Katz, pulls a rabbit out the hat by showing that the life insurance was simply an extension of an existing policy which a fast-talking salesman persuaded Nick to take out without his wife’s knowledge; and then, more complicatedly, discovering that Nick had policies on the property and business with numerous insurance companies, manages to persuade them that it will be cheaper to settle their payouts among themselves and drop the law suit. At which Cora and Frank walk free, a striking example of the way the impenetrable machinations of white-collar people casually control the destinies of powerless blue-collar people.

Can you hear me knocking?

Aparently there’s debate about what the title actually means since there is no postman anywhere in the book. In an interview Cain said the postman knocks once for a letter, which requires no reply, but twice for a telegram, which requires and signature and generally brings bad news. Alternatively, it could simply be that Death, or Fate or Destiny, comes calling twice.

Frank manages to escape justice in the court case and there is a honeymoon period where he and Cora adapt to life after Nick’s murder. This is not without its own tribulations as a) when she goes to see her ailing mother, Frank immediately lights out for a week down south and has a wild affair with a woman who invites him to go away altogether, hunting big game cats in South America (!) b) the dick Katz employed to take a statement from Cora that, yes, they had planned Nick’s murder, which was then suppressed as part of Katz’s complicated legal scheme to save them – this dick pops up with the transcript and tries to blackmail them.

But despite this danger from without, and a hard series of scenes after Cora finds out Frank has been unfaithful to her, despite these setbacks, they both feel some Fate or Destiny has bound them together and, after Cora tells Frank she is pregnant with his child, the novel almost concludes with a joyous carefree scene of them taking a day at the ocean, bathing in the warm water under a clear sky, carefree and happy.

Until the postman rings for the second time.

Hot writing

Puts Hammett and Chandler in the shade. Chandler is a dandy. Hammett’s style, as I’ve pointed out in another post, is completely external and turns his characters into robots. This fierce, fast first-person narrative throws us straight into the mind of this small-time crim and rivets us there, in his quick exploitative worldview, in his animal sexuality.

‘Cora. You can call me that if you want to.’…
‘Cora. Sure. And how about calling me Frank?’
She came over and began helping me with the wind wing. She was so close I could smell her. I shot it right close to her ear, almost in a whisper. ‘How come you married this Greek, anyway?’
She jumped like I had cut her with a whip. ‘Is that any of your business?’
‘Yeah. Plenty.’
‘Here’s your wind wing.’
I went out. I had what I wanted. I had socked one in under her guard, and socked it in deep, so it hurt. From now on, it would be business between her and me. She might not say yes, but she wouldn’t stall me. She knew what I meant, and she knew I had her number. (Chapter 2)

No fancy underworld slang, no thieves’ patois, no horseplay with guns, no shootouts. This novel makes all of Hammett and Chandler look stagey and contrived. In his famous essay on Murder Chandler says Hammett returned murder to the people who actually comitted it, a comment I found hard to understand when I read Hammett’s books; something like The Dain Curse reads like an extremely contrived TV miniseries, with its elaborate backstory about the man who took the rap for a murder he didn’t commit, escapes from Devil’s Island, gets involved in a weird religious sect in San Francisco, with everyone pretending to be someone else and contriving elaborate plans for murder, staged suicides, blackmail, faking robberies and so on and so on.

Here, a cunning lowlife falls for a hot babe and they murder her husband to get him out of the way but are caught out by the Law. The return of Fate at the end adds a spookily convincing Greek tragic air to the whole thing, but this – not Hammett or Chandler – feels like it’s staring American Crime in the face in all its simplicity and stupidity.

Movie versions

So intense and powerful is the narrative line it has been adapted seven times for the movies, two plays and an opera. The 1981 movie with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange had an electric affect on my generation, but buffs reckon the 1946 version starring Lana Turner and John Garfield is the best.

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