James M. Cain, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (1934)

the_postman_always_rings_twice coverEven 80 years after it was first published, The Postman Always Rings Twice retains its power to shock. The novel’s tale of sex, murder and retribution is not new; but what Cain brings to this old, old story is blunt, fat-free storytelling that makes the events it portrays all the more arresting. Postman is the tale of Frank Chambers, a drifter who enters a roadside cafe in search of a free meal. The Greek owner, Nick Papadakis, takes a liking to him and offers him a job. Frank in turn takes a liking to Nick’s young wife, Cora; they begin an affair, one which culminates in a plot to murder Nick so they can be together.

The novel’s frank portrayal of sex is one aspect that must have shocked its original audience, partly because this is no conventional romance. For Frank and Cora, physical love and violence are intertwined from the very beginning, a deep red seam that runs through the book. Their relationship has a strong element of sado-masochism, made explicit the very first time that Frank kisses Cora:

I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers… ‘Bite me! Bite me!’

I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

It’s a surprising moment, barely ten pages into the book. But what follows in the aftermath of Nick’s sordid, drunken murder is even more shocking. In an attempt to make their fictional car accident look more authentic, Frank tears open Cora’s blouse, and hits her across the face. It’s difficult to discern which of them is more turned on by this act:

She went down. She was right down there at my feet, her eyes shining, her breasts trembling, drawn up in tight points, and pointing right up at me. She was down there, and the breath was roaring in the back of my throat like I was some kind of a animal, and my tongue was all swelled up in my mouth, and blood pounding in it.

‘Yes! Yes, Frank, yes!’

Next thing I knew, I was down there with her, and we were staring in each other’s eyes, and locked in each other’s arms, and straining to get closer. Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it.

I had her.

Transcribing that first paragraph has brought home to me just how sexual the language is – in particular Frank’s tongue heavy and swollen with blood, surely not the only part of him to be so engorged. This visceral scene is the novel’s pivotal moment. Frank and Cora’s partnership in killing is sealed with an act of sex, and it is from this moment that their lives start to unravel. With only sex binding them together, it is only a matter of time before the retribution that had sat waiting patiently in the background is called forth.

James-M-Cain-007Cain’s writing is stark and entirely appropriate to Frank, who is the book’s narrator. He is a man adrift from society, and mystified by it – more accustomed to taking what he wants, and doing whatever is necessary to keep it. It is his lust for Cora that sets the novel in motion, and yet despite the power she has over him he also fears her, and cannot settle into a more normal life. It is Frank’s inability to accept a stable relationship that makes his final downfall all the more tragic – a man granted exactly what he wished for, and unable to accept the price that comes with it.

Frank’s fate is inescapable, which is surely a hallmark of the noir genre, once described as being populated by people damned from the story’s very beginning. This is also perhaps where Cain’s mysterious title comes in – there’s no postman in the book, nor any reference to him. Rather, it’s the fact that one cannot hide from destiny – even if it misses you the first time, it will always come knocking once again. All debts must be paid, all books balanced.


  1. I’ve read three of his books (the most popular ones) and have enjoyed them all with Mildred Pierce being my absolute favorite. His books follow a pattern where his characters are looking for something better but things almost never work out and they end up in less than happy circumstances. I remember reading why he chose that title but as I type this I can’t recall. I like your explanation for it. Great review.

    • Thanks very much. There are a few suggestions made for the title, but I haven’t found any confirmation online from Cain himself. I like the fact that it isn’t clear-cut, and is left somewhat mysterious

  2. Great review! I loved this book. It’s tough, short and totally in your face. Plus the 2 movie adaptations aren’t too bad either, particularly Jessica Lange as Cora.

    • Thanks very much. It’s the only Cain I’ve read, but I loved it – he’s a merciless writer, and doesn’t turn away from the violence. Incredible to think what it was like when first published – must have caused a storm!

      I haven’t seen the Lange version (but have heard about the notorious ‘kitchen table’ scene), bur really rate the Lana Turner/John Garfield one – one of the first noirs I remember seeing

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