Review of The Postman Only Rings Twice by James Cain
Frank Chambers is a thug and a criminal who has been through a string of Southern California jail cells. In between prison visits he tries to get a little cash by working odd jobs such as picking crops or busing tables. When he jumps off the back of a truck and comes across the diner/gas station run by Nick Papadakis and his beautiful young wife Cora, he finagles a low-paying job without many questions asked. Frank and Cora plot and sulk and use terms like “flimflam” and other great words from the 1930s to form the seduction/want, crime, payback trifecta of crime noir novels.
That kicks off James Cain’s stripped-down, gritty, sexy crime romp he titled The Postman Only Rings Twice and published in 1934. The kicker is that no postman makes an appearance in the novel. One can only surmise that the postman is a metaphor for the grim reaper. Cain admitted as much in his preface to Double Indemnity where his fellow screenwriter Vincent Lawrence told him the postman would also ring his doorbell twice. Cain adapted the phrase as being applicable to the end of his novel and went with the title.
The Postman Only Rings Twice didn’t invent the crime genre, but rather a sub-genre of it much like Edgar Allan Poe did with the first locked room murder crime story—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” almost 100 years earlier in 1841.
And what was Cain’s sub-genre exactly? It’s now termed Roman Noir or hardboiled crime and is defined, more than anything else, by the writing style employed. Cain uses a basic--almost sanitized--style of writing that is devoid of exposition and rarely provides the name of the character speaking. It makes one wonder if his editor gave him a strict word limit that forced him to go back and cut every superfluous word in the final edit. It is reminiscent of the way Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises in 1926 (his first novel and in the roman à clef style of real life story having a fictional façade), which Cain must have certainly read given its popularity. Cain’s stripped down writing, just like Hemingway’s, gives readers the feeling there is an iceberg of information floating under the surface of his criminal sea.
The Postman Only Rings Twice is an interesting tale and well worth your reading efforts. I give it an 8 out of 10.