James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice
Following on from a recent review of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger at Mookse, I was struck by something read in the comment – that Camus took his inspiration from an American crime novel. Now, I’d heard of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), was aware it had been adapted for the screen, but still knew nothing about it. In all honesty, when I thought about it, all I could recall was a Sesame Street spoof from the Monsterpiece Theatre series with Alistair Cookie.
That the title, at least, had ingrained itself in culture made me curious enough to read it, my previous indifference to Camus’ acclaimed novel aside. In preparing to do so there was the feeling, not having read much crime fiction before, that it would be best to understand what ‘hardboiled’ meant in relation to the text, to get an angle on it. Interestingly, I came across a quote by Raymond Chandler, himself a name from the hardboiled stable, calling Cain “a Proust in greasy overalls”, amongst other things.
The Postman Always Rings Twice was Cain’s first novel, following on from a collection of essays, and is arguably one of the most important crime novels of the 20th Century. Where most crime fiction would follow the detective, Cain’s novel throws out such characters and instead zooms in on the people that matter most: the criminals and their victim.
Much of the action here takes place at the Twin Oaks Tavern, “a roadside sandwich joint, like a million others in California” run by Nick Papadakis, commonly referred to as the Greek, and his attractive young wife, Cora. It’s the presence of the latter that leads the narrator, a drifter called Frank Edwards, to quickly change his tune about the ubiquity of such joints.
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.
The speed of the prose is exhilarating, for having only just spotted Cora a couple of pages into the book, they have a furtive relationship cooked up in little more than a few pages of terse dialogue, a relationship simmering with so much steam that when she implores him to ‘Bite me! Bite me!’, you believe she means it. It’s what the moment will do for you.
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.
Relationships built to last were never meant to have a third person and in all this, marriage or not, the Greek falls foul of the nefarious plans of wife and her beau. Once again, Cain’s performance in all this is a high octane approach to his prose and it’s a matter of mere pages before the couple are plotting the Greek’s death so as to ensure she keep the diner. Over-plotting is more apt, for the meticulous detailing of the perfect murder unravels due to an unforeseen – and unforseeable – circumstance, becoming a botched operation. Thankfully, the Greek remains blissfully unaware of the conspiracy around him. It’s only when they get up the courage to have a second attempt at dispatching him, on a road trip this time, that the novel’s greater complexity kicks off.
She got in, and took the wheel again, and me and the Greek kept on singing, and we went on. It was all part of the play. I had to be drunk, because that other time had cured me of this idea we could pull a perfect murder. This was going to be such a lousy murder it wouldn’t even be a murder.
Prosecutions, accidents, murder, blackmail – all these comes together in a lattice of twists and turns that solidify the novel as a whole, even if a passage on the ins, outs, and bucking of the legal system proved a tad confusing for this reader. Even when Cain has seen his characters go through hell and back he delivers a final twist that, to be honest, was probably more of a twist at the time of publication. Likewise, in a day when sexual content in a book barely causes the batting of an eyelid, the tame nature of the sex in The Postman Always Rings Twice, what was once considered controversial, makes it hard to gauge objectively the impact of its force.
It’s easy to see what Chandler meant when describing Cain in greasy overalls as there’s a certain roughness to the prose, although the colloquial style feels right here, feels believable. This is Cain’s strength, that he can get to the heart of people, capture their basic impulse, and make a wider story from a patchwork of dialogue and snappy sentences. While the novel’s effect may have worn with age, there’s no denying that in The Postman Always Rings Twice Cain delivers, which is more than can be said for the postman, who doesn’t even make an appearance. Not in person, anyway.
November 19, 2008