Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) is one of those rare first novels that, when first published, met with both popular and critical acclaim. “We get action and plenty of it,” notes the original New York Times reviewer. “Through the whole business of emotional spasms, of recriminations and reconciliations, of marches by the police and counter-marches by the culprits, of crime and greed and lust, the story races with the speed and power of a cataract” (Strauss 1934). Three-quarters of a century later, the novel is still eagerly read by mystery fans. It has been adapted for film, theatre, and opera.

The Postman Always Rings Twice appears on The Mystery Writers of America’s Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time, the British Crime Writers Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, and the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century. In 1970, Cain was presented with the prestigious Grand Masters Award by the Mystery Writers of America.

During his long literary career, Cain wrote short stories, plays, film scripts, and eight bestsellers including the two he is most famous for – The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. He also wrote influential articles for leading magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and The Saturday Evening Post. Although he performed a variety of jobs, he worked for much of his life as a journalist. Cain’s terse style of writing – like Hemingway’s – was shaped by his journalistic background.

The Postman Always Rings Twice begins with a meeting between Frank Chambers, a drifter, and Nick Papadakis, the owner of a roadside diner. Nick gives Frank a job as a mechanic; Frank begins an affair with Nick’s wife, Cora; and the pair make two cold-blooded attempts on Nick’s life. This is a violent, tempestuous story told from the murderer’s perspective.

Cain based the novel on a 1927 news story of a woman named Ruth Synder who, with the help of her lover, killed her husband. The trial drew large crowds; Synder was subsequently executed by electric chair (Polito 2003, xix).

The world of the novel is ruthless, tough, brutal. Like Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley (see my post on The Talented Mr. Ripley), Nick and Cora plot a murder with great ease and no remorse. We see events through Nick’s eyes, yet he is a curiously detached character who does not reflect on events. He experiences no guilt or turmoil. Nick’s character mirrors the nature of the world at large; the final irony of the novel foregrounds the meaningless universe that he inhabits. As Pepper claims,
Unable to define himself through his actions and the choices he makes, and possessing little or no self-insight, his life is ruled by contingency and fate; whether he succeeds or fails in the tasks he undertakes is arbitrarily determined by forces beyond his control and his comprehension. (2010, 63)
Naturalism and existentialism are philosophies that underpin the novel. Not surprisingly, Camus has sited The Postman Always Rings Twice as an influence on L’Étranger (Pepper 2010, 63). Paired incidents associated with water, car crashes, and court cases highlight the sense of relentless inevitability that permeates the narrative.

In noir thrillers such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, novelists characteristically depict the social and economic context that contributes to the crime (Scaggs 2005,109). The Great Depression is the essential shaping influence on characters in this novel.

As in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the road dominates the story, highlighting the rootless, transient world of the Depression. The diner is a roadside establishment; tragic events occur on the road; characters take to the road numerous times to escape life’s difficulties and responsibilities. Nick tries to lure Cora to life on the road but she tells him, “That road, it don’t lead anywhere but to the hash house” (14).

A terse narrative style characterizes Cain’s work. “His story is a third as long as most novels,” observes Strauss (1934), “and his success is due entirely to one quality: Cain can get down to the primary impulses of greed and sex in fewer words than any writer we know of.” This pairing down to essences is what gives the novel such an elemental quality. Cain earned an M.A. in English drama and the American short story. The novella format of The Postman Always Rings Twice draws upon his educational experience and strength as a writer.

At the end of his review of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Strauss (1934) issues a challenge: “We defy anyone who has broached that remarkable first sentence to put his book down without finishing it.” This is definitely a single-sitting book.

Cain, James M. The Postman Always Rings Twice. 1934. In Novels and Stories, 3-106. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Pepper, Andrew. “The American Roman Noir.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, edited by Catherine Ross Nickerson, 58-71. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Polito, Robert. “Introduction.” In Novels and Stories, ix-xxiv. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.

Strauss, Harold. “A Six-Minute Egg.” New York Times. February 18, 1934.