The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

Sex and death…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Frank Chambers is a bum who drifts from place to place, making a living out of gambling and petty cons. One day he finds himself at a garage outside Los Angeles without funds or a ride. He cons a meal out of the owner, a Greek by the name of Nick Papadikis. Nick’s looking for help around the place, so offers Frank a job. Frank’s about to refuse when he catches sight of Nick’s wife, Cora, a luscious brunette who oozes sensuality…

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.

Now Frank has a reason to stick around, and it’s not long before the lip-mashing commences. And soon Frank and Cora feel that two’s company.

My initial reaction to this novella was a feeling of disgust. Frank’s objectification and sexualised descriptions of Cora made me faintly nauseous, and their joint racism about Greeks and “Mex” and anyone else who might not be whiter than white didn’t help much. But then as I got to know Cora better I discovered she was just as revolting as Frank, so I acquitted Cain of misogyny and racism, and convicted him of misanthropy instead. And, oddly, once I reached that point, I found the book much easier to get along with.

….She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s – leave it locked.”
….“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.”
….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.

There’s no doubt it’s compellingly written in the true noir style. Reading it is a little like being held up on the motorway because there’s been a crash just ahead – you know you shouldn’t stare but you can’t help yourself. As a study of two amoral, self-obsessed monsters drawn to each other through lust, it’s brilliantly done. But, like Damien Hirst’s dead cow, can it really be considered art? I’ve mentioned more than once that I tend to judge literature on the basis of Flaubert’s famous quote:

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we long to move the stars to pity.

I could see the bears frantically dancing but the stars had all gone out. Maybe that’s why they call it noir. I’d call it a glamorisation of sado-masochism, except that it’s way too sordid to be glamorous. When our lovely heroes aren’t indulging in some vicious sex that seems to involve lots of bruising and blood – but it’s OK ‘cos Cora likes being hurt – then Frank’s beating people senseless…

….When he was half out the door I cut the juice in the sign, and it blazed down in his eyes. He wheeled, and I let him have it. He went down and I was on him. I twisted the gun out of his hand, threw it in the lunchroom, and socked him again. Then I dragged him inside and kicked the door shut. She was standing there. She had been at the door, listening, all the time.
….“Get the gun.”
….She picked it up and stood there. I pulled him to his feet, threw him over one of the tables, and bent him back. Then I beat him up. When he passed out, I got a glass of water and poured it on him. Soon as he came to, I beat him up again. When his face looked like raw beef, and he was blubbering like a kid in the last quarter of a football game, I quit.

And yet, oddly, despite their vicious callousness, they are two of the most incompetent murderers I’ve come across. Of course, that’s partly the point – it’s when the police and lawyers become involved that the story reaches its real moral dilemma – under pressure, will their love/lust for one another be enough to hold them together? When you know the bad, bad things your lover has done, can you ever trust him/her? Can you be sure that when he/she says he/she loves you that he/she really does and wasn’t just using you? And once the excitement of murder is over, how do you feel about the dullness of everyday life – does the passion last when you no longer have to sneak around and hide, when there’s nothing left to plot? This second half of the book is far more interesting than the sex-saturated first half – to me, at any rate.

Book 32 of 90

I don’t know how to rate it really. It’s undoubtedly superbly done so I admire it for that. I’m not the greatest fan of pure noir so haven’t read extensively in the genre, but the little I have read has usually given me one good guy to root for amid the gritty darkness, and a femme fatale who may behave badly but is morally ambiguous. This one gives two people with no redeeming features whatsoever, so that I could only hope things would end badly for them. Again, that’s the point, so it succeeds in its aim. I found it well written, psychologically convincing, and it creates a truly noir world in which everything is soiled and corrupt and no gleam of light beckons. But it left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind out with a Brillo pad. I’ve settled on four stars – compelling rather than enjoyable, but I can understand why it’s considered a classic.

This is my Classics Club Spin #18 book.

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48 thoughts on “The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

  1. Terrific review, FF. Both film versions are worth watching, too: the 1946 John Garfield/Lana Turner classic; and the 1981 Jack Nicholson/Jessica Lange version, with screenplay by David Mamet. The latter sounds truer to the tone of the book, though the former is stunning to watch.

    • Thanks, Angela. 😀 I’ve seen the older one before but long ago, so I feel it’s time for a re-watch. I haven’t seen the Nicholson/Lange version though. I have the impression that the older one makes Frank out to be more a victim of a femme fatale than the book does – in the book they’re perfectly matched…

  2. What does it say about misanthropic me that noir is my favourite genre? I think you are very fair with the book, which does perhaps veer slightly into voyeurism. But yes, there is no redeeming feature there, so you read not with hope in your heart but with a sense of (well-deserved) doom.

    • Haha – my lips are sealed! 😉 I like noir-ish but I realise more and more that totally bleak doesn’t work for me. I need there to be some hope or some character that I care about. This left me feeling too grubby. I couldn’t help comparing it to the old Cracker story with the male/female murdering duo, and how much I cared about them because I had been shown why they were so damaged. That’s what I felt was missing for me in this one, I think…

    • Thank you! 😀 I had no idea it was quite so dark either when I put it on my list. I’ve only seen the older movie, and though it was noir, no way could Hollywood have shown all that brutal sex stuff. Hmm… in truth I suspect you might hate it. If I was recommending noir to someone who hadn’t tried much of it before, I’d probably recommend The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep rather than this…

  3. Ugh.This is the type of thing you can read about in the papers almost every day, so what makes an author decide to spend their time writing such stuff?

    Thanks for this review. Now I’ll never be tempted to read it 🙂

    • Ha – that was pretty much my feeling too! It was very well done, but is that enough? I must admit I hadn’t realised it was quite as dark as this when I put it on my list.

      Haha – happy to be of assistance! 😉

  4. Thanks for taking the bullet for all of us by reading this, FF. I believe I saw the older version of the movie adaptation–the one with Lana Turner. The book is one I’ll skip, however. I like some noir. But some “classics” remind me of times long by and how glad I am that those times have ended! (Though some attitudes today unfortunately are just as stale as those in this book.)

    • Ha – yes, I’m afraid the attitudes in the book seemed all too familiar! I saw the older movie too many years ago, but would like to watch it again now to see how it compares to the book – I can’t imagine Hollywood would have let it be quite so sordid, and certainly the sex would have been hinted at rather than shown, which would be a relief! I like noir-ish, but I need there to be a little bit of light…

  5. That’s the thing about this book, isn’t it, FictionFan? They’re really unsympathetic, and it’s best to see them as reflections of a misanthropic look at life. I have to admit, I’m with you on the ‘isms.’ Still, the book is so well-written, and it is a really clear example ofnoir. Now, go and read something really light to restore your faith in people….

    • Certainly the darkest noir I’ve come across and has made me realise I really need some light somewhere. I think dark grey is dark enough for me! But it’s very well done, there’s no doubt about that. Haha – I’ve retreated into a nice vintage murder mystery and a bit of horror on the side – much more fun! 😉

  6. Great review! This definitely sounds too grim for me, but I think you have given a great sense of it. This is how I feel about quite a few classics that I’ve read – Thomas Hardy comes to mind – superbly done misanthropy that I slightly wish I hadn’t read. I hope your next read is somewhat more cheery.

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, this was too dark for me – it made me realise I need a bit of light somewhere in the story. Haha – coincidentally I’m just about to start a re-read of Hardy’s Tess! I guess I’m a sucker for punishment… 😉

  7. Thanks, but no thanks. This is one I’d have to stay FAR away from — all that meanness and lack of morals would be totally offputting for me. I have to say I’m surprised it garnered four stars from you, FF. Perhaps it has some redeeming value after all (but I’m content to glean a bit of familiarity from your review rather than stumbling through it myself!)

    • It was too dark for me, but it was very well done, and although I didn’t enjoy it I felt compelled to go on reading. It’s not one I would really recommend though, except to people who really enjoy true noir…

  8. yikes! haha I love how kissing is instead ‘mouth mashing’-that gives me shudders just thinking about it! And you’re right, Frank sounds like an asshole, no doubt about it.

    • Haha – isn’t it gross?? Yeah, Frank’s bad, but Cora’s no better – they truly deserved each other. Kinda like Lizzie and Darcy, but without the dancing… 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 It took me a while to get past the misogyny and racism, I admit, but when I eventually grew to hate them all, it didn’t seem quite so bad… Haha! Too dark for me, I fear! 😉

    • Haha – I must admit I don’t think I could really call myself a Cain fan, but this was definitely better written than Mildred, even if it was just as horrible a story. Thank goodness none of his other books will be troubling my TBR, though! 😉

    • Haha – well, I certainly won’t be twisting your arm on the book, but I might re-watch the film. I don’t remember it being a favourite, but I also don’t remember it being as relentlessly horrible as the book…

    • It’s only recently I’ve realised how many of these old Hollywood movies were based on books. Usually I prefer the books, but with this one it’s so long since I watched it I can’t really remember much except that I think I enjoyed it!

    • Ha! I had put both of them on my Classics Club list and had already acquired this one before I read Mildred, or I wouldn’t have! But although I can’t say I enjoyed this, I do think it’s much better written.

  9. “Bite me! Bite me!” This sounds like one of my Dark One novels! Vampires and Beloveds. did you notice that the author use the word mashed more than once to describe kissing? It’s an odd word to use, so the fact that he used it more than once would drive me nutty. This book sounds like it’s a classic like Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a classic. Both leave you feeling awful but you can’t deny why it’s a classic.

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