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The Postman Always Rings Twice ()

Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (98)

James M. Cain, along with Chandler and Hammett, really created the literary genre which would be turned into film noir. One revels in the image of Cain, who was himself an insurance adjustor, sitting at his desk dreaming up the perfect murders which form the basis of his novels.

In Postman, Frank Chambers interrupts his cross country rambling at a diner owned by Nick Papadakis after getting one look at Nick's wife, Cora. That first look conveys everything we need to know about the relationship between men and women in noir fiction, "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."

Frank and Cora become lovers and are soon plotting to murder Nick, but find they don't trust one another and "Love, once you get fear in it, turns to hate."

As the novel closes, Frank is on Death Row. One of the other inmates theorizes about the sub-conscious and how he's not responsible for his crime. But Frank says, "To hell with the sub-conscious. I don't believe it. It's just a lot of hooey, that this guy thought up so he could fool the judge. You know what you're doing and you do it." This is another quintessential element of American noir--the "heroes" are not victims of the psyche; they are knowing actors & when the time inevitably comes to pay for their sins, they accept punishment stoically, knowing that they deserve it for their evil deeds. There's an important lesson here, as we close the Century which saw a sustained assault
by the partisans of Freud and Marx upon the notion of personal responsibility.

To quote the immortal philosopher Baretta, "don't do the crime, if you can't do the time."


Grade: (A)


James Cain Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: James M. Cain
    -ENTRY: James M. Cain: American novelist (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: James M. Cain (IMDB)
    -ARTICLE: James M Cain: lost story by ‘poet of the tabloid murder’ discovered in Congress library: Strand Magazine will publish Blackmail, a tale of a blind Korean war veteran, found by New York editor Andrew Gulli (Martin Pengelly, 26 May 2023, Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Prince of Darkness James M Cain's hard-boiled novels of greed, lust and murder made for perfect film noir. (William Preston Robertson, 12 Apr 2001, Guardian)

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