The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain – review

the postman always rings twice james m cainThis book has been written about for close to 80 years so there probably isn’t anything I can contribute to that “conversation” that hasn’t been added by someone else before.

In case you’ve been living under a rock or just woke up from 76 year long coma, The Postman Always Rings Twice is about a handsome young drifter named Frank Chalmers who starts working at a dinner in a small California town, falls in love with the owner’s wife Cora and decides (with Cora’s help and encouragement) to kill him in an effort for them to be together. Sounds pretty basic and straightforward as far as plots go and that’s the charm.

This book is about bad people making bad choices; letting their greed and selfishness inform their decisions and having to manage the consequences. The issue for them is that the way they manage the ramifications of their actions is the way they deal with everything else: self-seekingly and deceitfully which leads to them sinking themselves deeper in that bottomless black water.

The thing that struck me was how sexy this book was for the time it was written. It seems tame in comparison to today’s standards but back then lines like “Rip me, Frank. Rip me like you did that night” were scandalous. Having characters, especially female characters, react so passionately, to be completely overwhelmed and consumed by sex was almost unheard of. Couple that with the fact that the violence in Postman was displayed as being clinical and efficient, without any moral ambiguity, caused the book to be banned in Boston and the movie to be banned in Indonesia, Switzerland, and Spain; all in spite of garnering critical praise in both forms.

For me this is prototypical noir. I have yet to read anything from this “early” period that feels more like it has laid the blueprint for the generations of noir novels that followed than The Postman Always Rings Twice (or Double Indemnity). I say this knowing full well that I have not yet read all of the noirs on the list from this era so my opinion may change after Tobacco Road or Bodies Are Dust but I find it hard to believe that anything will beat Cain for that top spot.


This is a part of the 200 noirs project. An attempt to read and review every book on Allan Guthrie’s Top 200 Noirs list. You can follow him on Twitter @200Noirs

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2 Replies to “The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain – review”

  1. I agree these two books are the blueprint for Noir. The criminal as protagonist, propelling the stories forward with their fascinating badness. Surely the Old School definition.