98. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

This week, the students at my school are taking the state standardized test, so I had three hours stuck in a classroom with seniors who were not testing. Plenty of time to read and tell the kids not to bother me.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a crime novel (the 1946 film is a film noir starring Lana Turner) that was published in 1934 by James M. Cain. It is rather short, only about 100 pages, but those 100 pages were scandalous enough to get the book banned in Boston, randomly enough.

It starts out rather abruptly. There’s no exposition; in fact, the narrator doesn’t introduce himself until three pages in. Frank Chambers begins the novel by being thrown off a hay truck (he’s a tramp) and wandering into an “auto court” that is half restaurant-half filling station. It’s run by Nick Papadakis, who Frank calls “The Greek” for basically the entire novel and who speaks in stilted English, and his beautiful wife, Cora. The Greek offers Frank a job, since Frank knows a thing or two about automobiles, and Frank repays his generosity by sleeping with Cora, who seems to have a few screws loose herself. When Frank kisses her for the first time, a red flag goes up:

I took her into 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.

Um. Ew.

As you’d think, Frank tries to convince Cora to run away with him, but Cora has this aversion to being homeless, I can’t imagine why. So her great idea is to kill the Greek so that they can stay and run the auto court without him. What could go wrong?

The first attempt to kill the Greek involves Cora bashing him in the head with what is described as a twisted beanbag full of metal. She plans to hit him while he’s in the bathtub, to make it appear that he fell in the shower and hit his head, with the added bonus that he’ll drown if the blow to the head doesn’t kill him. But at the exact moment that Cora hits him, a cat steps on the fuse box and blows the fuses in the house, making all the lights go out and Cora panic, for some reason. Frank fishes the Greek out of the water and they call an ambulance to take him to the hospital, telling the cops and the doctors that Nick fell and hit his head. So the Greek survived and doesn’t remember being bludgeoned, so he goes back home with Cora and Frank.

But Frank and Cora! They are so in love! Their love is so true! And Cora reeeally wants the auto court. So they try the same plan in a different venue — this time, they get the Greek sloppily drunk, bash him over the head with a wrench, and then crash the car, leaving themselves with injuries. There is also a very inappropriately timed sex scene after the car crashes into the ravine and Frank has punched Cora in the eye to make it look like she was injured in the crash and it turns them both on. Cora is one twisted sister.

The police and the ambulance report to the scene, and the police are instantly suspicious of what has happened. It turns out, unbeknown to Frank, the Greek had taken out a $10,000 insurance policy two days before the accident. The prosecutor, Sackett, interrogates Frank and gets him to sign a complaint that by crashing the car, Cora attempted to kill him as well. And when Cora finds out, she is PISSED. She writes out a confession that tells everything about her affair with Frank and how he had been involved with attempting to kill Nick.

A lawyer is hired for Frank and Cora, and there is a lot of lawyerly speak involved that I think boiled down to him proving that the Greek had insurance policies before and the accident insurance was just part of the insurance package and that Cora had no idea about it. Or something. But it ended with Cora receiving a suspended sentence and no jail time — her confession was squashed by their lawyer and the prosecution never knew about it. But the fact that Frank signed the complaint and that Cora tried to point the finger at Frank sown some major seeds of discontentment at the auto court.

Frank and Cora return to the auto court, where Cora has major plans for its improvement but Frank just wants to sell it and move on. Then there was something about Cora leaving to visit her mother and Frank met and had a brief fling with a woman who trained and kept wild cats and sends Frank a puma kitten. Okay, then.

They drive to the beach together and Cora tells Frank that she’s pregnant, and they plan a life together, and on their way driving back home, boom, car accident. Cora is killed, and the description is thus:

When I came out of it I was wedged down beside the wheel, with my back to the frontof the car, but I began to moan from the awfulness of what I heard. It was like rain on a tin roof, but that wasn’t it. It was her blood, pouring down on the hood, where she went through the windshield.

UM. EW. Boston, you got this one right.

The cops arrest Frank and pin him with the deaths of both Cora and the Greek, and the end of the book reveals that the story you’ve been reading has been written by Frank in jail as he awaits news of his sentence, whether he gets the death penalty or not. He finds out that there is “no stay,” meaning he will be executed, and asks people to pray for “me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is.”

For as short as the novel is (about 100 pages), it was rather rough to get through. The writing style is very concise and matter-of-fact with very little details. It wasn’t really enough to keep my interest, especially since none of the characters are sympathetic.

And throughout the entire book there is no postman, ringing twice or otherwise.

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