But Why The Postman?

In the months before writing The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain felt he was all washed up. It was 1932, the middle of the Depression, he was out of work, forty years old, crippled financially by alimony payments and ill with stomach disorders. A newspaper man, he had been forced to leave the East coast when the paper he worked for was sold (and a stint on the New Yorker had been disastrous). He came to California as so many writers did to work for the movies, but it was not considered admirable work; instead it came with a certain humiliation, as the place where failed writers ended up. Cain did not settle here, either, claiming after several months and a couple of botched scripts that the one thing above all he could not write was a screenplay. What he wanted to produce was a novel, but he knew it was impossible for him to write fiction in his own voice. He had to become someone else altogether, someone from a different class and walk of life. He also knew he had to write from a real event, and these limitations undermined his confidence in himself.

Leaving his job at the studios and turning freelance was to prove the best decision he ever made, although his future looked bleak at the time. But he began to feel seduced by California, and by the civilisation it had produced, full of colourful, bold, reckless people. The basis for his novel was suggested to him by an item in the local news about the woman who ran the local filling station. Cain knew her by sight as an ‘appetizing but utterly commonplace woman’ and was astonished to learn that she had killed her husband. The novel was slow in its gestation and torturous. Cain revised it thoroughly before offering it to his publishers, who, only after all sorts of hesitations, eventually accepted it. And then it became an enormous overnight success.

It was the first major American bestseller in both paperback and hardback, spawning a play and a movie. Never before had such a thing happened, as the book garnered rave reviews across the country and went on to be a huge commercial success. From being a relatively unknown journalist, James Cain was suddenly a star. What made the book so good for its reviewers was the economy with which he had told his story, and the gripping nature of the narrative. I can certainly vouch for the economy. When Mister Litlove asked me to recount the story to him, there were so many twists and turns, so much plot, that by the time I’d finished, he could probably have read the mere 115 pages of the book itself.

The story is told from the point of view of Frank Chambers, a drifter and a con man, who turns up at a filling station with a lunchroom attached with the sole purpose of conning himself a meal. By the time that meal has ended, his life has changed. He has accepted a job from the Greek who runs the place, and fallen irrevocably in lust with the Greek’s wife, Cora. Their affair is swift and tempestuous, but a significant obstacle presents itself. Cora refuses to take to the road and risk her chances with Frank. She has no taste for vagabondage and wants to live a settled and respectable life. And so the pair turn to the problem represented by the Greek, whose good nature is not enough to overcome their xenophobic distaste for him, and they come up with a plan to bump him off. Cain wanted this to be a love story, and despite the brutality, it is. It’s the tale of two people who cannot let each other go, even though they exacerbate each other’s worst amoral qualities, and the uncertainty as to whether Frank and Cora will make it together, or perhaps the fascination as to how they will finally sabotage themselves (which seems altogether more likely) keeps the reader spellbound.

I can see why this novel has lasted the test of time. It’s an ugly, sordid little story in many ways, but its vividness and its cunning, and the pure strength of attachment between Frank and Cora are oddly bewitching. Frank is an especially well-imagined character, a hot head with a dreadfully sensitive, soft side and absolutely no self-awareness, he follows wherever his instincts lead him, which is along the route to self-gratification in the shortest of short terms. He’s a monster, but in his pitiful love for Cora he is, if not redeemed, then humanised. I was thinking, as well, about how this book ties into the Depression era in which it was written. There’s such a bleak, lawless feel to it, an urgency that is all to do with the powerful drive towards survival in hopeless times. And yet, there’s one point in the story where Frank and Cora end up with a lot of money, and it doesn’t help them at all. By then, it isn’t about the money any more, it’s about the integrity of their love for one another, something that has also been dirtied and ripped apart a bit by the events they have put themselves through. Somewhere, hidden out of sight in this narrative but lurking in the shadows of the story, there’s a fear of what happens to people when they don’t have work and respectability to steady them, and a belief that the things we yearn for, like love and self-respect and ordinary joy always transcend the criminal impulse, even if sometimes the desire for them is what causes the criminality in the first place. We tend to think that money matters far too much, but when life is stripped back to its barest bones, what we find is that money can do nothing for our deepest desires.

The only thing I really didn’t understand about this book was the postman reference. When Mister Litlove asked me what the title meant, I had to confess I had no idea. ‘I waited right the way through for the postman to ring twice, and he never did,’ I said. It’s a great title, but how on earth is it related to the story?

12 thoughts on “But Why The Postman?

  1. I read this at a very young age and was very impressed. I read a few others of Cain’s books that are also good. It seems he has been turned down far over 10 times until the book found a publisher and chose the title spontaneously meaning everything has a second chance or so it says in the intro of my book (I have this in German). I always thought tat is refrred to the affair. In German people always say “That child is surely from the postman” when a kid doesn’t look like the father. Do you say this too in English?
    I wouldn’t exactly have chosen the word love for their affair but rather passion. In any case, it’s an almost violent feeling. I think, after having read your review that I should read this again.

  2. I’m afraid I can’t help with the postman reference; I remember thinking I understood it when I last read the novel, but that was almost ten years ago. This is a great review that captures the essence of what I have always thought was one of the best crime novels written. It sets the stage for the Ripley series and, later, American Psycho, but it stands on its own merits (which you have pointed out so well). Cain also continues in the dark tradition of American naturalists like Norris and Dreiser–McTeague and An American Tragedy loom large here.

  3. I feel totally transported by this review – not only do you do a lovely job of reviewing the text you do a great job of making me feel as though I am in California with Cain as he strikes out on his own. I loved reading every inch of this review!

  4. I’ve not read the book but have seen the movie and it is fantastic. It sounds like the film makers actually did the book justice which is not always the case. I definitely want to read this one and have forgotten enough of the movie that I will still be surprised at some of the twists and turns (I hope).

  5. This sounds brilliant and I loved hearing in the comments that it led to other deeply creepy books, featuring villianous anti-heros. The idea of two depraved people in love reminded of this really freaky episode of Criminal Minds, where a psycopath and a sociopath go on a sexy killing road trip. Terribly disturbing, because it seems like love should never be mixed with blood and violence. Older, moral novels tell us these are surely the consequences of lust. Yet it’s impossible to watch that episode (and it sounds like) to read this book and not see that it’s love in the eyes of the murderers.

    Must confess I am a little bit disappointed there isn’t a murdering postman.

  6. Caroline – ha, isn’t that funny, in Britain we joke about the milkman being the unacknowledged father of children. I have no idea why we should pick on milkmen and Germans on postmen – only nowadays milkmen are almost obsolete so it sounds very old-fashioned as a phrase. I agree that the love/passion is a very violent feeling, and that produces all sorts of thoughts in me that I wish I’d had time to consider. I would like to read more of Cain, too, as this was swift, complex and memorable.

    Hobgoblin – those are fantastic ancestors and progeny that you point to there, and I hadn’t thought of any of them although I see the links now you mention them. Since I’ve been blogging I’ve come to love American literature and I would like to understand it better. I have Dreiser’s Sister Carrie on my shelves and must get to it, as he seems such a defining influence. It’s lovely to have you drop by and comment – thank you!

    Harriet – thank you so much for that link! An explanation at last!

    Lola – I wish now I’d found an omnibus as I’d really like to read more of his novels. I’d love to know what you make of this one.

    Lilian – it’s on the dark side, but not what you’d call scary. I’d love to know what you think of it.

    Courtney – oh thank you, you’ve made my day with your lovely comment!

    Helen – oh how I wish I could say it was redemptive but, in all honesty, it isn’t. But I think it manages to carry its bleakness because so much happens; nothing is lingered upon, if you see what I mean, and the desire to see what happens next is as powerful as the darkness of the novel. My cover isn’t actually as cool as the one I pictured – wish it was!

    Kathleen – I keep humming and haaing over watching the movie (either the old or the newer version). I might… but I really did like the book and it is well worth a read. So much gets packed in that I’ll bet it can still surprise you.

    Jodie – such interesting comments on love and morality. Yes, that is part of what’s so disturbing about this book – the recognition that love makes the couple lawless and violent, and it does feel all kinds of wrong, and yet emotionally logical. I might get Mister Litlove to watch Criminal Minds and tell me all about it afterwards – it’s amazing how much I can stand when reading that I come over all squeamish about when watching. And your last line really made me laugh. I KNOW! That’s exactly how I felt. 🙂

  7. I’ve always wondered about the title. Somehow it suits the story even if it’s not obvious why he chose it. I was also thinking about Dreiser as I was reading your post. His life even parallels Cain’s a bit–he was also a journalist, was down and out and working in Hollywood when he started writing An American Tragedy (and also wanted to base the story on an actual criminal case as he wanted to write about murder). It’s interesting that one should be so long and the other book so short! But Dreiser also writes about the American quest for success. I’ve read the Cain novel a couple of times and agree the movie is really very good. It’s such a bleak story all the way until the bitter end. I’ve always thought that at the end it was not an accident but Frank couldn’t bear that Cora was getting off and took matters in his own hands in a moment of passion and he certainly is one to do things in fits of passion. I really must read more of his work.

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