James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice

The following article was originally published in the fantastic Edgar-nominated anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell, who has  kindly given us permission to re-print Joe R. Lansdale’s essay here. Please support this wonderful and timely collection available wherever books are sold.

Born in Annapolis, James M. Cain (1892–1977) studied at Washington College, in Chesterton, Maryland, earning his B.A. and master’s there. He worked as a journalist, screenwriter, and novelist. His novels are often mentioned in the same breath with those of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as a key contributor to the so called hard-boiled school of crime fiction. Cain resisted that label, however, stating that he belonged “to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise.” Several of Cain’s novels were adapted into films. Three—The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941)—are considered classics of the American screen. Cain’s post World War II works include The Butterfly (1947), a story of incest and murder set in Kentucky, as well as his personal favorite, a Depression hobo novel, The Moth (1948). In 1970, he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

James M. Cain was the master of hard-boiled prose, lean clean dialogue shiny as a new dime. He wrote like a demon on holiday, sexed up and hung over, and he changed the landscape of literature as surely as Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner or Raymond Chandler. But as Tom Wolfe wrote: “Nobody has quite pulled if off the way Cain does, not Hemingway, not even Raymond Chandler.”

In fact, Chandler thought very little of Cain and then adapted one of his best books into BillyWilder’s noir film Double Indemnity. The dialogue is snappier than Cain’s, and some of the scenes have a kind of high poetry about them. But Cain’s fiction stands quite well on its own and has about it a kind of working man’s muscular poetry, soaked in sweat and hormones so ripe you can almost smell it.

The characters themselves are not poetic at all. At first glance, they appear to be everyday people. They want what most people want. A goo life. But the cold difference is they’re unwilling to work for it. At their core they feel entitled, above and beyond the working person’s code.With The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain established this theme at the start of his career, and in most of his novels it’s hammered at with the hardworking mentality of a blacksmith shaping a horseshoe. Later, he perhaps shaped too many similar horseshoes, but he pounded out two masterpieces that changed the landscape of crime writing and other forms of writing dramatically. His work inspired so many novels, films, and even comic books, that if they were piled on top of one another they’d reach to the moon and beyond.

Those two masterpieces were The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. The former is possibly the most famous, if for no other reason than the title is a mystery unexplained by the book. Nowhere inside the story does the line appear, or anything that resembles the title, but the title works. It brings to mind a kind of dead certainty like the arrival of the postman, who, if you don’t answer the call on the first ring, you will on the second. And that’s exactly what happens in the novel; there’s a chance to miss that first ring, to not reach out and take hold of the bad choice, but it’s a chance you know will be denied and that these characters will most certainly open the door on the second ring. What’s behind the door is not mail delivery, but a fate carved deep into the walls of hell.

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon” is one of the best opening sentences ever written. Simple though it is, it carries a lot of information. The main character, Frank Chambers, telling his story in first person, with that one line has revealed all we need to know about him. He’s a loser, constantly cast aside by mainstream society. He’s someone on the edge, trying to get a free ride through life. And there’s something about him that makes certain people, those in the know, not want to have anything to do with him. They realize he’s, well, “wrong.” They can sense the shark under the water.

The plot is simple as well. In fact, it’s boy meets girl. But the problem is the girl is married to a Greek named Nick Papadakis, an unattractive guy with an accent and a tourist court, a filling station, and a sandwich joint. The woman, Cora, though not classically attractive, has a hot body and a look about her that makes a man want to mash her lips. For Frank Chambers, she’s a walking, talking, sex-charged dream; she’s everything he’s ever wanted, and if the dice roll right, she comes with a sandwich shop.

Cora is the fine, shiny, tasty-looking apple on the outside with the big fat worm in the middle. She’s everything a mother fears for her son. She’s the hot patootie with her soul on ice. She’s just what Frank Chambers has been looking for when he’s thrown off that hay truck at noon and comes walking into Cora’s and Nick Papadakis’s life. As for Cora, Frank is what she’s been looking for, a big, handsome lug with all the willpower of a marionette; the only thing she needs to do is fasten the strings.

Written so tightly that it squeaks like new shoes, the story shows Frank and Cora embracing their doom in their sleazy quest for easy money and minor position. Cain dramatizes their destruction step by relentless step, and it’s like watching someone walking down a railroad track with a train coming, lacking the will to step off. For Frank, it’s suicide by sex drive. For Cora, it’s suicide by greed. There’s real attraction between the two, but there’s no trust. The clock is set, and all we need to do is wait and watch until the alarm goes off.

I’ve always loved Chandler and Hammett and Hemingway, but over the years, I’ve come to think that Cain, with this novel and Double Indemnity, was the master of the lean mean writing machine, and that although his reputation is high, it might have been higher yet had he written fewer books that were weak specters of this perfect little gem.

Where does mojo storytelling come from? How does one learn to spin yarns in any genre, whether it be horror, suspense, science fiction, or western? First you need to see the world, like Joe R. Lansdale, who has lived most everywhere, if you count a small area of east Texas as everywhere. Second, you need to learn how to take a punch. Or a kick. Then, learn how to avoid them. (Lansdale has long been an ardent student of the martial arts.) The author of dozens of novels (including seven featuring the delightful Hap Collins and Leonard Pine) and several short story collections, Lansdale has been called “an immense talent” by Booklist. The New York Times Book Review declares that he has “a folklorist’s eye for telling detail and a front-porch raconteur’s sense of pace.” He received numerous awards, among them the Edgar, seven Bram Stoker horror awards, a British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, and two New York Times Notable Book citations. His novella “Bubba Hotep” was made into a film by the same name and is considered a cult classic. Lansdale lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, with his wife, Karen.

[Editor’s Note: We are proud to announce today that Joe R. Lansdale is joining Mulholland Books. We will be publishing his novel The Edge of Dark Water in Fall 2011.]