Pulp Fiction Redux #4: James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1935)

By James M. Cain

The Thirties were a dark time that gave rise to novels of dark passions, and none darker than lustful sex and murder, and in the case of this one, a devilish twist on Calvinist predestination. Read instead of the postman, fate; fate rings twice, or as many times as necessary, to bring the journey of a life to its unalterable end.

In his gritty, dirty (as in atmospheric; you can almost smell and taste the grime of these characters’ lives) crime novel, James M. Cain put the worst aspects of human nature on full display, a reason why Boston saw fit to ban The Postman Always Rings Twice.

It’s a story you probably know well, as Cain’s novel has been adapted to film at least seven times internationally, not to mention adaptations in other media (a couple of film trailers below). However, it is still worth reading not just because it holds up well more than eighty years after its first publication but also for its cultural impact in the context of its time, a more prudish America.

Frank Chambers, a drifter with a criminal past, lands at a the Twin Oaks Tavern, owned and operated by Nick Papadakis, an outgoing, hardworking Greek. Frank and he strike up a friendship. Nick encourages Frank to stay and help out. Frank resists and prepares to leave, when he sees Nick’s wife, Cora. Everything changes in that instant, for Frank and for Cora.

Between them surges a spark of animal magnetism that instantly binds each to the other. Shortly, they engage in rough, passionate sex and Cora reveals her discontentment with old greasy Nick. The two hatch a plot to kill Nick, but it fails because of a stray cat.

Realizing he has escaped a nasty fate, Frank tries to get away from Cora and Nick, who is under the delusion he suffered a near fatal accident. Then, by happenstance some time last, Frank runs into Nick, who cajoles him into returning to the tavern. Soon enough, Frank and Cora take up again and hatch yet another plot, a car accident, that proves successful in killing Nick.

After, badly injured, Frank has to contend with a very suspicious cop. He’s saved when another cop turns him onto a slick lawyer, Katz. Katz gets both off with some extremely sleazy tactics that threaten to turn Frank and Cora against each other, as well as reveals a hefty insurance policy Nick has taken out on his life (a plot device Cain uses to greater effect in his 1943 novel Double Indemnity). Though this revelation causes Frank to speculate as to whether Cora has set him up, the pair patch things up, in no small part because Cora tells him she is carrying his child.

While it appears  the two will be happy lovebirds and a settled married couple, fate comes calling for its second shot at Frank and Cora (having already had two whacks at Nick). Thinking Cora is suffering a miscarriage, Frank drives like a maniac to get her to the hospital, when he crashes and Cora dies. Given his past, the cops and courts don’t believe Cora died by accident. Frank pays the price. So, not only will fate have its way but also the readers who are usually more comfortable when justice is served, regardless of how that my come about.

An important novel for how it deals frankly and openly, even for modern times, with the baser aspects of human nature. w/c

1946 Hollywood film adaptation starring Lana Turner and John Garfield.

1981 Hollywood film adaptation starring  Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson.


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