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Frank's Book Log

Literature is a relative term.

The Postman Always Rings Twice
1934 | Novel
A still from The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)
  • B+: 4 stars (out of 5)
    on 24 Jul, 2022

    Aside from the characters saying “suspicions” instead of “suspects” you’d never guess this story of a drifter getting mixed up with married woman to murderous results was from 1934.

    The drifter’s name is Frank Chambers. The woman is Cora. Frank meets her when he drifts into the Twin Oaks Tavern, a roadside eatery in California. Frank resents his attraction.

    …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.

    But soon can’t separate his feelings.

    Next day I was alone with her for a minute, and swung my fist up against her leg so hard it nearly knocked her over.

    “How do you get that way?” She was snarling like a cougar. I liked her like that.

    Cora’s husband is the Greek. He owns the diner. Frank thinks he’s all right, but Cora hates him.

    “The hell he’s all right. He stinks, I tell you. He’s greasy and he stinks. And do you think I’m going to let you wear a smock, with Service Auto Parts printed on the back, Thank-U Call Again, while he has four suits and a dozen silk shirts? Isn’t that business half mine? Don’t I cook? Don’t I cook good? Don’t you do your part?”

    Soon she’s roped Frank into killing the Greek. They seal the plan with a kiss.

    I kissed her. Her eyes were shining up at me like two blue stars. It was like being in church.

    Frank plans it so it’ll look like the Greek’s car went over a cliff and down a hill. He’s thorough.

    My tracks, they didn’t worry me any. I figured there would be plenty of men piling down there pretty soon, but those sharp heels of hers, they had to be pointed in the right direction, if anybody took the trouble to look.

    Even in the heat of the murder, the sexual tension proves palpable.

    I began to fool with her blouse, to bust the buttons, so she would look banged up. She was looking at me, and her eyes didn’t look blue, they looked black. I could feel her breath coming fast. Then it stopped, and she leaned real close to me.

    “Rip me! Rip me!”

    I ripped her. I shoved my hand in her blouse and jerked. She was wide open, from her throat to her belly.

    But the DA suspects (“suspicions”) the truth. It looks bad until Frank lucks into a crafty lawyer named Katz. In keeping with the novel’s nihilistic tone, Katz doesn’t care that they’re guilty, he just relishes beating the DA.

    Oh, Chambers, you did me a favor all right when you called me in on this. I’ll never get another one like it.

    Up to this point, this ranked as one of the best books I’d read. But Cain runs out of steam. The story meanders, with Frank running out on Cora, then realizing he can’t, then realizing he loves her. The ending, meant to be ironic, disappointed me. Cain taps into a primal nihilistic—or at least existential—undercurrent that thrilled and challenged, rendering the moralistic ending disingenuous. Still, the first two acts deliver some of the finest hard-boiled fiction I’ve read.