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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

July 24, 2012

An amoral young tramp. A beautiful, sullen woman with an inconvenient husband. A problem that has only one, grisly solution — a solution that only creates other problems that no one can ever solve.

This book was chosen for our booksellers reading group, and I have to admit, if it wasn’t for that I probably never would have picked this up! I’m a not a great lover of crime fiction, so it was always going to be an interesting test to see if I would enjoy it or not…

When first published in 1934, this novel actually caused a great deal of scandal due to its mix of violence and sex. It even went on to be banned in Boston! It went on to be adapted into a motion picture six times – including one with Jack Nicholson. Acknowledged by Albert Camus as being the inspiration for his novel The Stranger, The Postman Always Rings Twice is now seen as one of the most important crime novels of the twentieth century.

At a mere 128 pages, it won’t take you long to read, but don’t think it lacks a gripping story! Cain’s sparse and simple writing style instantly grabbed me, with its casual tones, and I was immediately propelled into the lives of Frank Chambers, and Nick and Cora Papadakis. The story is pretty easy to grasp as it follows drifter Frank as he comes to work for the Papadakis’ at their diner, where the beautiful Cora soon captures his attention. The two embark on a tumultuous, lust-fueled affair, and plot to kill Cora’s husband. But of course, nothing is ever quite that easy…

Even though the story grabbed me and I kept turning page after page, intrigued to see how it would all end, it didn’t quite make enough of an impact on me as a whole. For one, I could pretty much work out half-way through exactly how it would end, and I didn’t find much of it a surprise. Second, I actually found it lacking in violence, but of course that’s probably to do with the time I live in, as opposed to 1934. It’s obvious that back then this story would have made much more of an impact, but for today’s society, I found it lacking. Maybe we are just far too used to gruesome, violent novels and films these days, that the power to shock just isn’t there any more. What I did find interesting was the way Cora and Frank clearly felt a sexual thrill from all the violent terrible things they did, especially when it came to attempting to murder Nick. I loved the way Cain handled and portrayed their relationship.

Third of all, there were some really ridiculous moments within the story, and some rather dull ones too. I always have this hatred of court cases in crime books; a huge part of the reason why I tend to avoid them, and sadly the court case in this novel dragged on far longer than it should have. In fact, if it wasn’t for that I probably would have rated it four out of five. And lastly, I really didn’t think Cain’s writing or plot work was any where near the standard of Raymond Chandler, whose novel The Big Sleep I absolutely adored, and which only came out a few years later than The Postman Always Rings Twice. Chandler’s story has every bit of detail and grittiness that I wanted Cain’s story to have, but which it certainly lacked. Although I appreciated Cain’s simple style, there is no doubt that the story needed much more fleshing out, and that’s where Chandler comes out on top.

It may not have left a huge impression on me, and nor will I ever read it again, but I’m really glad I got the chance to read this book. Like I said, it wouldn’t have been something I would have picked up before. Our next booksellers’ book group choice is Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending, which I am definitely excited about!



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