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?