Hardboiled fiction entered the literary scene in the 1920’s and is “distinguished by an unsentimental portrayal of crime, violence and sex.” A subset of this genre is Noir fiction, and James M. Cain’s 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is one of its earliest and most salient contributions. Noir fiction is characteristically dark with fatalistic overtones: the protagonists are aware of their evil deeds and accept that punishment is inevitable. They are also directly connected to the crime – a diversion from the traditional hardboiled style where the protagonist is a detective.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is ranked 98 on the Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels and has earned this honour through its fast-paced, no-nonsense, blunt style. At only 116 pages, it doesn’t waste time with superfluous details, but cuts straight to the chase.
Taking on a confessional style, the narrator and main character, Frank Chambers, is a likeable bum with a long line of jail sentences across an array of U. S. states. In his roaming, he ends up at a diner owned by Nick Papadakis (the Greek). Having had one glimpse at the Greek’s sultry wife, Cora, he accepts a job offer and stays. Cora and Frank embark on a steamy love affair and ultimately plot the murder of the Greek. They fail at first, but then pull off a seemingly perfect crime. From Nick’s death onwards, though, things take a rapid nose-dive into distrust, paranoia and betrayal, brought about by the clever manipulations of the experienced lawyers trying the case.
The title of the book seems a misnomer at first, as nowhere in the story is there any mention of a postman, let alone one that rings twice. It signifies, however, that in reality, crime will never actually go unpunished: ultimately, justice will catch up with you one way or another, and in the end it may be for something you didn’t actually do.
Published approximately 76 years ago, the characters may seem a little clichéd or perhaps old-fashioned, but this novel is hailed as one of the best examples of its genre. So, if you enjoy crime fiction and authors such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, W. R. Burnett, Horace McCoy, Mickey Spillane and so on, this one should logically be added to your list.