THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James M. Cain is a noir classic from 1934. I stumbled on a copy in a used bookstore and realized I’d never read it. I didn’t know what I’d been missing all these years.
Frank Chambers is a drifter, roaming around the American Southwest with empty pockets and clenched fists. He’s been in and out of Mexico and in and out of jail, only to wind up at a dumpy truck stop in southern California run by Nick, a Greek immigrant, and wife Cora.
Soon Frank and Cora are steaming up the windows and plotting to run away together. But they have to get rid of Nick first.
And get away with it.
Frank narrates the book. He’s a restless type, always ready to hit the road and see where it takes him. We don’t like him but at least he’s honest about it.
Even as the lovers plot to kill Nick, and deal with the aftermath, neither Frank nor Cora fully trust the other. Will one double-cross or kill the other?
And then there’s the crooked lawyer, who in 1930’s slang, “flimflammed” them.
The writing is sparse and lacks dialogue tags, no “said” for Cain, which occasionally leads to confusion as to which character is speaking. Yet the swiftness and sparseness works for the noir genre; there’s nothing to weigh down the growing sense of unease or the final impact. The characters, especially Frank and Nick, are expertly drawn. Every scene is a visual filled with restless and scheming people under the hot California sun. No doubt this is why it has been made into a movie at least twice, the first in 1946 with heartthrob John Garfield and pinup girl Lana Tirner.
In the end, punishment is meted out to the guilty. Bottom line? This tautly written novel packs a hefty literary sucker punch.
Oh and if you are wondering about the title, I think “postman” is a euphemism for accountability. If you don’t pay the price of your crime the first time, the postman will come by again to make sure you do.
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