Desire, Fate and Murder in The Postman Always Rings Twice

James M. Cain’s noir masterpiece is still the blueprint for great crime fiction over eighty years from its release.


This morning I made a coffee and started reading James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Three cups later I had finished it.

What a debut!

For those unfamiliar, the story follows Frank, a handsome drifter who wanders into a roadside diner. You know the kind, “like a million others in California”. He just wants something to eat. Alongside his meal he gets a job offer from Nick, the jovial, naive and Greek (don’t forget that he’s Greek), owner. It’s a decent offer but Frank has other propositions. That is until he lays his eyes on Nick’s wife, Cora, whose lips stick out in a way that makes him “want to mash them for her”. He accepts the job and Cora begins to swoon. But the inconvenient husband stands in the way, to which there is one grim solution — death.

Cain tells the narrative in a confessional form that permeates suspense throughout, in a ‘will-they-do-it-and-get-away-with-it’ rather than a ‘whodunit’.

Published in 1934, The Postman Always Rings Twice is told from Frank’s perspective with all the prejudice and racial insensitivity of a working man in the post-depression USA. Where calling a white man a “Mex” is liable to earn you a swift punch and foreign characters are referred to exclusively by their nationalities.

Uncommon for the period are scenes that depict acts of sadomasochism, eroticism and brutal violence, laced throughout the book like skimpy lingerie on a femme fatale. These moments shocked me. It’s unsurprising that upon release, the book was banned in Boston and Canada.

Take, for example, the brutal image Frank is greeted by as he regains consciousness after a car crash.

“I began to moan from the awfulness of what I heard. It was like rain on a tin roof, but that it wasn’t. It was her blood, pouring down on the hood, where she went through the windshield.”

Or the sadomasochistic eroticism of Frank and Cora’s first sexual embrace.

“I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers. . . ‘Bite me! Bite me!’

I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

These scenes are captured by Cain in concise, terse prose in a style shared by his contemporaries, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. All three have a unique penchant for painting scenes and capturing characters with sparse yet expressive language that writers have tried, with little success, to imitate since.

And characters are the pillars on which the novel stands. Cain’s flawed characters motivated by lust, greed and desire blow wind into the billowing sails of the story to propel it relentlessly forward.

Frank is an endearing scoundrel, a grifter who has been arrested in a dozen cities and is equally likely to get swindled as he is to do the swindling. He’s humorous and charming, a good guy with a habit of finding trouble. Someone I could imagine sharing a cold beer with on a hot summer afternoon. It is an ode to Cain’s characterisation that, while Frank constantly deceives and schemes, taunts and threatens, we can’t help but root for him.

“I’m talking about the road. It’s fun, Cora. And nobody knows it better than I do. I know every twist and turn it’s got. And I know how to work it, too. Isn’t that what we want? Just to be a pair of tramps, like we really are?”

Cora is an ex-beauty pageant winner from a small town who aimed for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood Boulevard but landed among the muddy coffee and runny eggs of an L.A. hash house. She escaped a life of destitution through marriage but ended up equally miserable. Her husband refers to her as “my little white dove”, and that’s what we come to see her as — a delicate bird confined by the marital cage, who craves freedom and passionate love.

“They gave me a test. It was all right in the face. But they talk, now. The pictures, I mean. And when I began to talk, up there on the screen, they knew me for what I was, and so did I. A cheap Des Moines trollop, that had as much chance in pictures as a monkey has. Not as much. A monkey, anyway, can make you laugh. All I did was make you sick.”

Frank loves Cora because she is a gorgeous, sullen, “hellcat” that is off-limits.

Cora loves Frank because he is handsome and mysterious and “not a little soft greasy guy with black kinky hair”.

The plot of the novel is driven by this desire for what they can’t have. If Frank and Cora kill Nick, they will be free to live together in perpetual happiness. They’re propelled into their murderous actions by lust and greed — and after one failed attempt, succeed.

Their wishes come true. And this is where the brilliance of the novel is revealed because the murder brings ramifications that reverberate through the character’s lives with the force of a gong on Chinese New Year.

They realise that there is no happily ever after. No fairytale ending. Life without the Greek isn’t the carefree picnic amongst rolling green meadows, with days spent making love and drinking and frolicking in the sun that they imagined. They have money and freedom and each other. All they desired. Yet they do nothing but bicker and fight and mistrust one another.

This is what Marvin Smith refers to as “the love rack”, and is one of the main themes of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

In ancient times a torture device was used to tie a victim by his hands and feet and pull their limbs simultaneously in two directions. The “love rack” replaces the physical ropes with the emotional bonds of love. The victim is pulled concurrently in two directions, wishing at once to cling to, and escape from, the object of his desire.

“The love rack” becomes the source of both pleasure and pain: the pleasure of being with the one you love and the pain the relationship brings.

Frank is immured by his physical lust to Cora, but at the same time, longs to be free of her.

Cora is confined by her physical lust for Frank but longs for the stability that Nick provided.

She voices her frustration after the Greek’s funeral, in a scene which epitomises the main theme of the novel — the cruel and inescapable fate that awaits those who commit heinous acts. Cora realises their relationship has rotted since the murder.

“look at us now. We were up on a mountain. We were up so high, Frank. We had it all, out there, that night. I didn’t know I could feel anything like that. And we kissed and sealed it so it would be there forever, no matter what happened. We had more than any two people in the world. And then we fell down. First you, then me. Yes, it makes it even. We’re down here together. But we’re not up high any more. Our beautiful mountain is gone.”

Frank doesn’t see the issue.

“We got away clean, and got $10,000 for doing the job. So God kissed us on the brow, did he? Then the devil went to bed with us, and believe you me, kid, he sleeps pretty good.”

The argument continues along those lines until they both concede and, in true noir style, find solace in bourbon. The scene ends with a notorious moment synonymous with the novel.

Frank pushes Cora onto the bed, slips off her blouse, and she says:

“Rip me, Frank. Rip me like you did that night.”

In this moment of twisted passion, we see a couple desperately grasping for the passion, love and emotion that swelled within them before killing Nick.

Cain, with trademark nonchalance, manages existential themes that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Shakespearean tragedy.

He manages to meditate on the disappointment that accompanies realised dreams, the disorder that comes through rapid change, and, most crucially, the cruel and inescapable consequences of fate on those who commit heinous actions.

All in just over 100 pages.

The inevitability of fate is alluded to by the book’s non-sequitur title. In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title comes from a conversation he had with the screenwriter, Vincent Lawrence, who spoke about the anxiety he felt when waiting for a postman to bring news about a submitted transcript. He would know when the postman arrived because he always rang twice. Lawrence described being so anxious that he would retreat to the backyard to avoid his ring. The tactic failed. Even from the backyard, if he failed to hear the first ring, he always heard the second. Always.

This conversation birthed a title that became a perfect metaphor for Frank and Cora’s situation.

“The Postman” is God, or, Fate who “delivers” punishment to Frank and Cora. Both missed the first “ring” when they got away with the initial killing. However, the postman’s second ring is inescapable; Frank is wrongly convicted of Cora’s murder and sentenced to death. The motif of inescapable fate is also evident in the Greek’s initial escape from death, only to succumb to the second attempt on his life.

Upon its release, The Postman Always Rings Twice delivered a tragic, savage and steamy story to audiences around the world. With crime fiction’s sustained popularity eighty-three years on, I encourage you to step up and answer the ring of this masterpiece.

Take this as a ringing endorsement and don’t wait for a second — you may regret it.

How Jack Reacher and I Grew Apart

Lee Child used to be one of my favourite authors. Now, I can barely make it through a page.

The Authorial Voice Guessing Game

Clues are restricted purely to the prose, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary. Not content.

I write on a computer that’s not new, but not old either. Outside it’s not warm, not cold. Just right. Three little bears. My desk is on the sunny side of a dark room. Pens. Pencils. Paper. The kind you’ve seen a hundred times. Maybe more. I get up to make a coffee. I drink it. Then another. Then I do what I do. Write. I do it every day. I might know I’m going to write. Might not. I keep going. No matter where it goes, how it gets there. Rules are rules. They keep society moving like gas in a pickup.

The screen starts blank. I tap for a while and it fills with words. Sometimes slow. Sometimes fast. Maybe somewhere in between. I do it for as long as it takes. A lot of words, a lot of time. Not all good, not all bad. Simple maths. I’m done when I’m done. Never before. Afterwards, I do what I always do, except when I don’t. Exercise. Walk or run. One is just a quicker version of the other. Pick your poison. Thirty minutes, then forty, then sixty. When I’m done its late afternoon. Sky red as a sunburnt trucker.

The evening is the same routine as the morning but later in the day. Shower, dry, dress. Fresh pot of coffee. Cup poured. Book opened. I collapse on the couch. Big and lumpy, just like me. No more work, minimal movement. Rest and relaxation. I might listen to music, faint as a HB pencil. Maybe 4H. Sometime later my stomach barks at me. I feed it. Meat and veggies. Caveman style. Potatoes, beer if I’m feeling it. I usually am. Time ticks, tocks. I’m not in bed late, but not early either. Tomorrow will be the same, maybe. Might not be a tomorrow, because writing like this makes me want to kill myself.

Did you find that inane prologue a slog? Did anyone guess what authorial voice I emulated?

James D. Grant, aka. Lee Child.

One of my favourite childhood authors, who I have realised is a horrible, terrible, atrocious writer. Or at least masquerading as one.

He’s a Bestselling Author, You’re Nobody

fair statement. I am a lowly aspiring author in the process of writing my first novel, and would dream to have the kind of success that Lee Child has had. Over 20 books published, many of which were bestsellers. His novels have been adapted into films starring Tom Cruise, he has been widely emulated, and admitted to being able to “live like a king without making another buck ever”. All this success from writing macho wish-fulfilment stories featuring the ex-military policeman turned avenging nomad, Jack Reacher. Reacher is as intimidating to men as he is attractive to women, and is one of the most recognisable characters of 21st Century popular fiction.

Child knows what his audience wants and sticks to a meticulous formula. His novels begin with the reliability of a Swiss clock. Reacher rolls into a foreign town, witnesses wrongdoing, and sticks around to fix it. Along the way he is bound to win several fights where he is outnumbered, speak like he grew up inside an 80’s action movie, and have sex with at least one, sometimes two, colleagues.

Of course, genre fiction is built on formula, which I am not opposed to. That is not my issue with Child. Ian RankinMichael Connelly, and John Sandfordrank among some of my favourite contemporary authors in the genre, and are all formulaic to some extent. Procedure makes thrillers and crime fiction work. To put it in the simplest terms: there is a crime, it is investigated, and eventually solved. What separates one work from another is what happens in between the crime and the solving — endearing characters, enthralling plots and vivid atmosphere. Child is sufficient at all these. He has studied the genre and hits story beats with the precision of the sniper in “One Shot”.

What Child doesn’t have, or perhaps chooses not to show, is a writing style with any substance.

So? He’s Rich and Successful

He certainly is. And you’re right to ask the question. Upon the release of “The Midnight Line” last week, this cycle will have continued with major success and very little deviation through 22 books across 20 years. The new book is bound to be met with the usual reaction — a mix of critical dismissal and appraisal, and huge popularity.

Most of us would kill for Child’s success. I wouldn’t mind writing novels in one of my two Manhattan apartments or one of my two houses in St. Tropez. Who cares about critical opinions. He has a large group of diehard fans that rush out to purchase his books each year. He holds fiction masterclasses, and guest lectures where he gets paid exorbitant sums to teach budding writers. He’s not trying to be Hemingway or Orwell or Dostoevsky. He provides the equivalent of a popcorn movie — something quick, fun and light to distract you from the world for a few hours at a time. In his world the baddie is always caught, the pretty girl always courted.

The other half says that I wouldn’t want that at all. At least, not that way.

Easy to say when you have no money, no temptation to forgo artistic integrity for popular consumption. But I don’t believe Child ever had any artistic integrity or any artistic aspirations at all.

His story is well documented. Sacked from his job at Granada Television, Child found himself on the chopping block with a family to support. Instead of looking for a new job, he spent £4 on paper and pencils with the aspiration of writing a best-selling book in the world’s largest market: America. It is the stuff of fairy tales, right?. Look at the wording I used. He didn’t take the time off to continue his hobby of writing, nor just write a novel to get it published. He sat down at his desk with the direct aim of writing a best-selling book to the American market. Not writing a good book, a best-selling one. The two are not necessarily mutual.

He is quite upfront with the way he goes about his writing. Unlike Stephen King or Ian Rankin, who meander into their stories, letting the characters grab them by their collars and drag them through to the end, Child crafts his simple tales with the formulaic care of a scientist handling beakers filled with toxic chemicals. This applies to every aspect of his writing — from his public persona, pseudonym and of course, his wandering hero, Jack Reacher. When Child talks about writing he doesn’t wax poetic about the joy and fulfilment of the act, he speaks of it with the dry lifelessness of a lawyer explaining a piece of legislation. He sees it as a means to an end. One example of this is his chosen pen name. It was crafted because he studied lists of best-selling authors and found that authors with surnames that are short, snappy and appear early in the alphabet, sell better.

Another example is the commercial reasons behind Reacher’s heritage. To increase book sales in France, Child added the backstory of Reacher’s French mother. Smart. Also an example of the lengths he has taken to craft himself into a best-selling author, not necessarily a good one. For anyone thinking that the two are mutual, look at the American president. If Donald Trump’s election has taught us anything, is that the public doesn’t have a bloody clue about what’s good and bad.

My Fading Relationship with Reacher

Looking over at the bookshelf nestled in the corner of my workspace, I count 10 Lee Child novels. Half are the first few in the series, the other half more recent. I know, I know! What a hypocrite. How can I write a critique of the man and own so many of his books? I’ll explain.

When I was around nine years old dad decided it was time to introduce me to adult books. Lee Child was one of the first he introduced me to. I instantly fell in love with Reacher — he was colossal, tough and smart, with a tongue that struck like a snake and fists equally lethal. I didn’t just like him, I wanted to be him.

Then I grew up. Christmas always meant new books for me, and more often then not, a new Lee Child book would sit proudly atop the pile. Only, like Andy towards Woody and Buzz in Toy Story, I began to drift away from them. I was introduced to new authors: Koontz, King, Rankin, Connelly. As well as old ones: ShakespeareConan DoyleHemingway, Orwell. I still loved Reacher, but each adventure became harder to labour through. Eventually, I stopped.

No, that doesn’t make me better than adult readers who still enjoy the stories. It just means that with my evolving appreciation and experience with literature, his prose had become infantile and unreadable.

Until, a few days ago mum came home with the latest Reacher novel, “The Midnight Line” as a gift.

While I was touched by the gesture, my mind immediately flew to an excuse I could use to avoid reading it. I had nothing. Half-way through another book at the time, I was able to put off the inevitable for a few days. I finished that book last night, and thus, when I woke this morning, it was time to begin. I padded into the kitchen, made a coffee and sat down to reacquaint myself with my old friend Reacher. I tried to be open-minded and give it a chance.

I couldn’t.

Barely thirty pages in I had grown sick of his lazy descriptions, halting sentences and cheesy dialogue. I packed it back onto the shelf next to several other unread Child novels. Then I started to wonder — had Child once been good and progressively gotten lazier and lazier until we reached the point we are at now? I decided to browse through the Reacher books I had and inspect the quality of his prose.

I found that while his writing was never very good, it has certainly regressed over recent years. Some sentences made me laugh out loud with their ridiculous, juvenile language. It became a fun exercise. I leafed through Child’s novels and marked down some of the more bewildering phrases and sentences that made it to publication. There are many more examples, I couldn’t tolerate giving the pages more than a cursory glance. It is true that if one is nit-picking you could find poor sentences in most popular novels, but these are regular, common occurrences in the work of Child.

Any aspiring writer should take this as encouragement and motivation — if he can be a best-selling author, so can you.

A Horrible List of Horrible Sentences

  • “The old homestead was both old and a homestead” (The Midnight Line, p.163)
  • “It was about as distinctive as the most distinctive thing you could ever think of” (Killing Floor, p. 356)
  • “Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through a city. Or, maybe the easiest.” (One Shot, p. 11)
  • “The plan was covered in the architects handwriting. Which looked like every other architect’s handwriting.” (Personal, p.289)
  • “Ten o’clock meant ten o’clock. Therefore exactly one hour before meant nine o’clock” (Personal, p.310)
  • “There were no people inside, as far as Reacher could see, which fact the back part of his brain seized upon” (Make Me, p. 187) Huh?
  • “It wasn’t a particularly big empty box. But it wasn’t small either” (A Wanted Man, p. 357)
  • “Don McQueen breathing slow, not quite asleep but not quite awake either” (A Wanted Man, p.68).

I found these by spending twenty minutes flicking through my collection. I can guarantee there are myriad better examples. Though, you can find them at your own leisure if you are so inclined. The above quotes are but a sketch of the complete image of what is so dull and infuriating about Child’s lackadaisical prose. But it teaches wannabe writers a valuable lesson — anything can be forgiven if you create a compelling character that people care about, you study your market and genre, and you provide somewhat original stories and settings.

My critique in mind, I do owe Child a massive thank you. His books encouraged my love of reading and helped pave the way for the further reading I have undertaken. He helped kickstart my love of reading. For that, no matter how asinine I now find his writing, I owe him eternal thanks.

Lee Child is not a great writer, but he never promised to be — he is, however, a best-selling one.

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Thanks for reading!