Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Penguin no. 874: The Postman Always Rings Twice
by James M. Cain

We're just two punks, Frank. God kissed us on the brow that night. He gave us all that two people can ever have. And we just weren't the kind that could have it. We had all that love, and we just cracked up under it. It's a big airplane engine, that takes you through the sky, right up to the top of the mountain. But when you put it in a Ford, it just shakes it to pieces. That's what we are, Frank, a couple of Fords. God is up there laughing at us.

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. It is clear from this first sentence that this is something quite different from the typical green Penguin. There is no detective, no clues, no puzzle to solve; this is the story of a murder in depression-era America, told by the murderer. There is no remorse and no justification, he is aware only of his passions and his instinct for self-preservation. He doesn't even dislike the man he kills. This is noir fiction, and it is dark and violent, and yet compelling.

Frank Chambers is thrown off the truck on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and stops in at the first roadside sandwich bar he finds. There is an element of randomness here, with nothing to distinguish this bar from all the others in California, but in choosing this one he seals his fate, and those of the owner and his wife. The owner, Nick Papadakis, offers him work, but Frank is a drifter, and his inclination is always to escape and get back to travelling aimlessly down the road. It is when he sees the wife that he decides to stay.

That decision is his undoing. Cora is not classically beautiful, but she is shapely, sultry and alluring, and everything he desires. He is such a slave to his passions for this woman that he acts repeatedly against his own interests and inclinations. For Cora has no illusions about that open road or where it leads: it's straight back to the poverty she married her wealthy Greek husband to escape. She wants the wealth, and the opportunity to make something of herself, but she doesn't want the husband. She isn't going anywhere with Frank; instead she manipulates him into helping her plan and carry out her husband's murder. Cora is a femme fatale.

The title is enigmatic, but throughout the story there is this idea of the false start, the temporary reprieve, as though fate missed the first time, but not the second. So the first attempt on Nick's life is unsuccessful, but not the second; Frank manages to escape from Cora, but a series of random events sees him return; and Frank and Cora escape conviction for Nick's murder, but they pay in the end. And in a way, they pay in the interim, because these are people who know nothing of love, or loyalty, or trust, and a lot about revenge and betrayal. Their passion feeds on violence and destruction, and it reaches its summit at the crime scene where Cora's husband dies; it's downhill from there. Nick's murder wasn't an escape, it binds these two together in a mutually destructive pact.

The book is only short; this edition has 122 pages. The story moves quickly, and the prose is stark, exposing the ugliness of the story and the characters. There isn't a single attractive character in the book, although it's difficult to assess Nick because we know so little about him. The lawyers are little better than these two, the prosecutor content to trick them into betraying each other, the defence lawyer - who knows they are guilty - viewing it as a contest between him and the prosecutor that he is determined to win, and thrilling in the challenge. It's an unpleasant story and yet spellbinding; unsatisfactory in the end, but not easily forgotten. As soon as I finished it, I started it again.


  1. Great review. I read this book when a teenager, via the local library, and was very struck by how different it was from my sheltered English existence! I think it's better than both films, but to be honest I can't remember much about it now (though I read several others by him, too).

  2. Thanks Maxine. I haven't seen any of the films and so I came to this story blind. I found it interesting, but if I'm going to read American crime fiction, I much prefer the Ellery Queen type.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...