Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Adventure classics -- The postman rings for murder

The Postman Always Rings Twice

by James M. Cain


When a novelist is named Cain, it’s easy to imagine him predestined to deal with murder and jealousy. Especially when he’s James M. Cain, the ex-journalist dubbed the “poet of the tabloid murder” who met his métier with his 1934 Depression-era masterpiece, The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Telling his story in the style of the popular “confession” stories of the day, drifter Frank Chambers “taps into the frustrated ambition, suppressed anger, and unsatisfied yearnings of masses of struggling people,” Paul Skenazy writes in his biography, James M. Cain.

Chambers’ world is a world whose fears are strangely like our own. There’s fear of the unemployed, whose fate the rest of us may catch like some version of economic AIDS. There’s its racism and fear of immigrants, exploited by the rantings of prime time demagogues in this month’s Texas political races. And there’s the age-old fear of women, their sexual power and, since the dawn of the last century, their growing economic power.

No wonder it was banned in Boston. No wonder it’s on The Modern Library’s list of the one hundred greatest novels (although it’s more of a novella, with only about 35,000 words).

Frank Chambers, kicked off a truck he hitched an illegal ride on from Tijuana, Mexico, a whole other story about despair and desire, ambles in by accident to the Twin Oaks Tavern. “It was nothing but a roadside sandwich joint, like a million other in California,” he says. “Then I saw her. . . Except for the shape, she really wasn‘t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.”

She is Cora, a failed starlet turned short order cook, now married to the sandwich joint’s owner Nick Papadakis. She hates her “greasy Greek” husband and fears being taken for a “Mex” because of her black hair. (Post-World War II Hollywood found the ethnic slurs so problematic it eliminated them, even to casting blonde Lana Turner as Cora in the 1946 film version.)

Cora yearns to run her own business with the proceeds from an insurance policy she has deceived her husband into taking out. All she needs to realize her dream is a fall guy. And Frank Chambers has fall guy written all over him.

While Frank believes Cora yearns only for his caveman version of sex, she plots to take over Papadakis’s business. The pair finally manage to kill Papadakis with a bungling car accident. A murder investigation follows--and fizzles-- when the insurance company decides to settle, but not before opening a wedge of deceit and suspicion between Frank and Cora.

Just when Frank thinks he’s reconciled with the now-pregnant Cora, another road accident puts him on death row for murder. This time it’s for Cora’s murder.

“Do you think she knows I didn’t do it?” Frank asks, near the story’s end. “. . . that’s the awful part, when you monkey with murder.”

Cain’s story was strongly influenced by the 1927 murder trial of Ruth Snyder, who had arranged with her mail carrier to signal when delivering statements for a policy on her husband. The trial’s notoriety made the phrases “the postman always rings twice” and “double indemnity,” which Cain chose as a title for his follow-up to Postman, synonyms for double dealing.

However, Cain had different explanation for the title of The Postman Always Rings Twice. It was, he wrote in the preface to Double Indemnity, the warning of inevitable fate. If not answered on the first ring, it will ring again.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a March of suspense with Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg.)

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