The Postman Always Rings Twice
James M. Cain
First published in the US 1934
This edition 2005, Orion Books
This is a short book with a very simple story. Frank and Cora, limited by poverty and education, and driven by lust and greed, work together to kill Cora’s husband Nick – with questionable success.
In the Hatchard’s Crime Companion, the CWA reviewer talks about ‘a sexual explicitness that caused offence at the time it appeared, although it seems fairly ordinary today’.
I think that gets it slightly wrong. On one hand, the sexual content is tame (although I am writing this during a trip to Riyadh so perhaps I’m being a bit Eurocentric). However, the sheer force of Cain’s description is still overpowering. Both Frank and Cora like mixing violence in with their sex, but I think their self-loathing is what really tips the balance.
Given the amorality of the characters (and I do read them as amoral rather than immoral), the ending is surprisingly restitutive, with everyone getting their just desserts.
Ultimately, Postman deserves your time as a reader. Not necessarily for the characters or the plot, but for the power of Cain’s prose.
One final mystery – I got to the end and still couldn’t work out why The Postman Always Rings Twice is called The Postman Always Rings Twice. Did I miss a page? Let me know…
Final destination: Back to the library
Update: Mysterious Press tell the story of the movie version in their 101 Greatest Movies of Mystery and Suspense.
Update: Another review of Postman at Crime Fiction Lover.
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Guardian Notes and Queries answered my question about the title on 23 May 2012.
Why is The Postman Always Rings Twice so called? The title seems to have no relevance to the story.
James M Cain suggested the term “postman” was not meant to be taken literally. Rather, the title refers to fate or justice eventually catching up with the perpetrator of a crime, even if they were not punished for the original offence. In Cain’s novel (spoilers ahoy) protagonist Frank Chambers helps his lover Cora to kill her husband, but due to machinations and double-crossing in the courtroom both walk free. However, Cora is later accidentally killed in a car crash and Frank, the driver, is wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The “postman” whose ring was missed on the first occasion, has “rung” again, and everyone hears his second ring.
In the 1946 film version Frank (John Garfield) has a lengthy and slightly clunky closing speech explaining the meaning of the
title to his captors.
David Hering, Liverpool