Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Frank Chambers is a drifter with itchy feet who needs a meal. Nick Papadakis, “the Greek”, runs a roadside diner and needs a handyman. Nick’s wife, Cora, is a lot younger than he is and is starting to regret a marriage she made for security rather than love.

the_postman_always_rings_twice

That’s not the cover I have, but it captures the book well so I thought I’d use it.

At first, Frank’s got no plans to stick around. He just wants to grift some lunch and get on his way.

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but 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.

Half an hour later Frank has a job, Nick has someone to help round the diner and Cora has a lot more reason to start questioning her marriage.

This is classic noir territory. A man, a woman, somebody in their way. On their own Frank and Cora aren’t saints, but neither is malicious. Frank’s a petty crook and womaniser, but nothing worse than that. Cora is smouldering frustration in a dress, but she’s resigned to the life she chose. The Greek? He’s a nice guy, none too bright, who loves his wife and has small dreams for his diner.

I didn’t realise until I came to write this post that almost every quote I picked was describing Cora. The novel is written from Frank’s viewpoint, and it captures beautifully Cora’s dangerous allure for him. There’s some lovely phrasing here, such as “When she spoke, it was in a whisper that sounded like a snake licking its tongue in and out.” Cora is Eve and serpent both. Frank doesn’t have a chance, but then nor does Cora, and certainly not the Greek. Nobody does.

Nobody sets out here to do anybody any harm. It’s just the situation. Frank and Cora have a connection, they have chemistry. In a very noir sense they’re just unlucky. Frank would rather just walk, but how do you walk from this:

She got up to get the potatoes. Her dress fell open for a second, so I could see her leg. When she gave me the potatoes, I couldn’t eat.

Soon Frank’s convincing Cora to leave Nick, but that would mean being poor and she’s not up for that. The diner isn’t much, but it makes money and run well it could make more. The only thing in their way is the Greek …

I’m not going to spoil the plot for those who’ve not seen the 1946 movie (Lana Turner on top form). All I’ll say is that Frank and Cora know that people will get suspicious if the Greek dies and they’ll likely get investigated for it, so they come up with a plan for the perfect murder. Do Frank and Cora though sound to you like the kind of people who can do anything perfectly?

I hadn’t seen the movie, so the story was new to me. It’s obvious from the opening that Frank and Cora are going to end up trying to kill Nick, but where that leads and how it comes to poison them I hadn’t anticipated at all. This is as much a psychological novel as a noir one. Are Frank and Cora in love, or just in lust? Nick loves Cora and counts Frank as a friend, so how do Frank and Cora trust each other given that they each know the other is perfectly capable of killing someone who wanted nothing but good for them?

Postman is tightly written coming in at around 114 pages in my version. It doesn’t need more because Cain packs depth into the detail. Nick is referred to through most of the book as “the Greek”, but of course this is Frank’s viewpoint and Nick stands in Frank’s way. Is it any wonder he prefers to objectify him? To give him a noun instead of a name?

Similarly, it’s easy to see Cora as a femme fatale, and of course she is but that’s a question of perspective too. If Cora were narrating Frank would be an homme fatale, an attractive stranger who won’t let her push him away and gets her thinking things she might otherwise never have thought. If Frank just left and never came back Cora would be unhappy, but she wouldn’t be dangerous.

That’s perhaps the most noir thing about Postman. This is a black hole of a novel where weak people do terrible things because none of them have the strength to resist their situation. This is a novel of an ugly crime carried out by small people. It’s brilliant, and if you have any interest in the noir genre at all you owe it to yourself to read it.

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25 Comments

Filed under Cain, James M., California, Crime Fiction, Noir

25 responses to “Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.

  1. Completely agree, it is brilliant. Great review also. This and The Grifters are still probably the best short, sharp, nasty noirs I’ve read. (The Long Goodbye is the best longish, sharp, nasty one.) How do you rate Cain up against Thompson, or indeed Chandler?

  2. You have me wanting to pull this down for a quick reread. It’s been a long time since I read it. One of the essential noirs. I’ve just done a month of sci-fi so maybe a month of crime wouldn’t be a bad idea.

  3. I’m about to read it, so I’ll save that entry for later.

    PS : The title echoes that quote by Gary about Lenny, LSD and his skis, don’t you think?

  4. It’s a great little squalid story. The movie version with Nicholson and Lange isn’t bad either.

  5. If you get a chance, grab You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up. Any plans to see the film?

  6. I ordered a copy last week after reading your review. Should have it this coming week.

  7. I might have to reread this one, Max. I read it several years ago and loved it. It’s a brilliant, tight noir.

  8. I’ve read this when I was still a teenager but it stayed with me. I don’t think any of the movies did it any justice. If I’m not completely mistaken Litolve reviewed it one or two years ago and linked it to other literature set during the depressing which gave it another dimension. Less noir, more like a social statement. It feels so bleak, I think the comparison is apt.

  9. Somehow I like those old noir covers from the Forties and Fifties much better than the ‘tasteful’ covers of today. I use them in my blog entries when I can. James M. Cain’s posthumous novel that came out last year, ”The Cocktail Waitress” is real good too.

  10. leroyhunter

    The movie tones things down considerably, and if I’m remembering right, even loses the explanation for the title. Worth seeing though. I haven’t seen the Nicholson / Lange remake.

    Interesting that you say “no-one sets out to do any harm”…yet, as with Double Indemnity, there’s the idea that these drifting lives contain a latent poison that synthesizes when they bump into each other. They are certainly open to pursuing the harmful options that open up before them.

  11. “Cora is smouldering frustration in a dress” — that’s fabulous.

  12. Lee, I don’t think I’ve read enough Thompson yet to properly compare to be honest. Chandler though is one of my favourite writers, regardless of genre. I loved this, but Chandler is why I drink bourbon and own a hat.

    I did prefer this to The Grifters, which I found just a bit too torrid in the end much as I enjoyed it. Great opening in The Grifters as I recall.

    Seamus, definitely one of the essentials. A month of crime sounds like a fine idea. I notice from your blog you read City of Bohane recently, is there any sense in which that could be called a crime novel or for that matter an SF novel?

    Emma, a bit, yes. It’s a wonderful line isn’t it?

    Cathy, thanks, I’ll look out for it. The 1946 version softens the end a bit (it doesn’t change it, just puts a moral spin that isn’t there in the book). I liked the film, but I didn’t love it as I did the book even though I loved most parts of it. Double Indemnity remains if not my favourite film noir certainly one of my top three or so.

  13. Jacqui, tight is a good word for it. There isn’t a wasted word. I wonder to be honest if I’ll read a better one by him.

    Caroline, nice point on the social statement. This isn’t like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? though where there’s no alternatives. Frank likes being a wanderer and there’s no sense he struggles that hard to find work. Nick has his own business, and it’s failings are more his lack of ambition than anything else (and it’s not a failing business, it just could be more), and while Cora comes from poverty she’s not poor now – just not well off.

    I’d love to read Litlove’s post though. I’ll have to have a dig around for it.

    Anokatony, I think it’s a great cover. I’m not big on the whole ironic reappropriation thing, I use the cover because I straightforwardly like it – it has passion and honesty and reflects the book. These (intentionally) aren’t tasteful books, why give them tasteful covers? What’s tasteful about a squalid murder?

    Leroy, the book doesn’t explain the title, the movie does – it’s the other way round. The movie’s weakness is a need to put a moral spin on events at the end, but the plot simply doesn’t support one. When the authorities do get involved the lawyers are if anything worse than the protagonists – because they lawyers are educated and have choices but are basically amoral.

    Nice point on latent poison. I think that’s just right. The harm lurks within them, waiting the wrong set of circumstances to set it free.

    Literary, thanks! I’ll give credit to Cain, the words may be mine but the imagery I was trying to capture is all his.

  14. Hi Max, re City of Bohane, I think it could be classed as both crime and sic-fi. Well worth exploring.

  15. Thanks Seamus. It’s one I’m holding back actually because it looks so good. I’m waiting until I need something great to wash away a bad read if that makes sense.

  16. I’m not sure if you’ve found Litlove’s review meanwhile.
    Just in case

    http://litlove.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/but-why-the-postman/

  17. I hadn’t, so thank you for the link.

  18. I’m with Seamus – time for a re-read of this. A nice copy of the Everyman’s Library edition of Cain just came into our house for one lousy dollar thanks to a book sale, so there it is, right there, right in front of me, its cover sticking out in a way that makes me want to mash it in.

  19. Hah, nicely put Scott! Let me know what you make of it on this read.

  20. Awesome review. *sigh*. Added to the list… :)

  21. At least it’s short Tomcat …

  22. I’ve read it. I’m not as nice as you with Frank and Cora…

  23. Pingback: Lust at first sight and to hell with the consequences. | Book Around The Corner

  24. I’m looking forward to reading your piece Emma. I’ve been mostly offline the past few days.

  25. Pingback: Double Indemnity by James M. Cain | JacquiWine's Journal

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