This classic novel by James Cain is full of flawed people, violence, lurid sex, bad choices and doomed people. It’s one of the earliest examples of noir and a book that was both successful and notorious when it was published in 1934. Despite its age, The Postman Always Rings Twice still holds up and is something that any fan of this edgier type of crime fiction should read.
The book tells the story of a Frank, a drifter who takes a job at a diner and falls for the greasy owner’s seductive wife, Cora. Their affair, full of lust and overtones of violence, leads Frank and Cora down a dangerous path. Cora, sick of her life and desperate for something better, convinces Frank that getting rid of her husband is the only route to freedom and a better life.
Like other works from Cain, the story follows the characters’ path to self-destruction, motivated by base desires. Lust and greed lead to murder. Not the elegant murder of a hit, but the messy and inefficient work of a man with no talent for the task, but a determination to finish.
Anxiety and fear lead to betrayal. Under suspicion for what they’ve done, Cora is willing to betray the man she plotted with. However, that neat and just ending is not what Cain has in store. Some fancy legal manoeuvring keeps Cora out of jail and allows reconciliation with Frank.
Of course, one of Cain’s other themes, and the characteristic that places his work firmly in noir, is the hopelessness. Neat endings are not the playground for the types of characters he creates. That is true for Frank and Cora as well. The ending provides a measure of both just and unjust retribution on the narrator of the story. It is the perfect cap to a tale of people following the most indecent of human desires.
Postman’s influence ranges across genre and time. Albert Camus remarked that the themes and style of Postman were an influence on The Stranger. Dennis Lehane has been quoted about the impact Cain’s dialog – full of vernacular and true to character – had on him. In a way, most crime novels other than procedurals and private detective stories owe a nod to Cain. He was a champion of featuring the perpetrator of the crime, rather than law enforcement.
The novel also spawned a few films, notably the 1946 adaptation that stands out as an early example of film noir, in both good ways and bad. The film captures the greed, lust and penchant for violence that fill the book, but there were changes that were more to do with the film industry, which Cain disliked, than the book. Cora for example, is more of a manipulator for its own purpose than in the book. Lost is the desperation that explains her actions without justifying them.
The film also spawned a series of ‘Cain template’ films that featured adultery, spousal homicide and characters who committed crimes, but were not themselves criminals. It became a popular, but likely overused, story type.
This short novel packs an epic’s worth of emotion and damage into its carefully chosen stream of words. Cain explores some of these same themes in his later works, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, but The Postman Always Rings Twice stands out as the seminal work for the genre.