The Postman Always Rings Twice ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
James M. Cain was an American author who lived from 1892 to 1977. His 1934 crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is an ironic and steamy (for its time) story of adultery and murder set in a California roadside restaurant. Even though it’s a “genre” novel, it’s ranked number 98 on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred greatest books in English of the twentieth century.
Cora Smith is a self-described “cheap trollop from Des Moines.” She goes to California seeking movie stardom, but when the movies don’t quite work out for her, she marries an older man, an unattractive Greek named Nick Papadakis, who she describes as “smelly and greasy.” Even though Nick doesn’t make Cora’s pulse race, he can provide her with some security, a job and a home. He owns his own business, a thriving roadside diner called Twin Oaks. Cora can work out her life slaving away there, cooking and slinging hash.
Along comes a drifter by the name of Frank Chambers. He is narrating the story in his first-person voice. Frank sees right away that Cora is unhappy; the two of them begin a clandestine love affair. Cora tells Nick she is desperate; she wants out of her marriage with Nick, but if she leaves, where will she go? They decide they will kill Nick and make it look like an accident. With Nick dead, the two of them will be free to sell Twin Oaks and take the money and go away together somewhere.
Frank and Cora plot to kill Nick in the bathtub. Frank will hit him in the head while he’s taking a bath; he’ll go under and drown; it will look like an accident, except that when the time comes it doesn’t go off as planned and Nick is injured. Frank and Cora are badly shaken, spooked at how close they came to committing the crime of murder and being found out. They are relieved that Nick will live and happy that he has to spend a week convalescing in the hospital, giving the two of them the chance to sleep together in the same bed while he’s away.
When Nick returns to Twin Oaks from the hospital, he realizes he has had a brush with death and is once again ready to embrace life to the fullest. He wants Cora to have to baby. In the funniest line in the book, Cora says: “I can’t have no greasy Greek child, Frank.” Murder is back on the table.
The second attempt to kill Nick is successful. This time, it’s an elaborately staged auto accident on a mountain road. Nick dies, but Frank is (unexpectedly) severely injured. When a canny prosecutor learns the facts of the case, he sees through Frank and Cora’s story that it was all an accident and knows that they killed the Greek. He makes Frank and Cora turn on each other.
There are a couple more ingenious plot twists but, suffice it to say, things do not go well for Frank and Cora. There is no happy ending in the noir world they inhabit.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is a slice of Americana, a small literary gem from the 1930s. (Never mind that it was naughty enough to be banned in Boston.) The book translated well to the screen in a movie adaption from 1946, with Lana Turner and John Garfield thoroughly believable as murderous lovers.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp