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University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

The Postman Always Rings Twice

cover image By: Cain, James M. (male)
Publisher: Pocket Books, Inc. (443 - 1st printing)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 212: PS3505 .A3113 P6 1947
Contributor: M. Davis, E. Griffin

General

Era: 1930s Author as on Cover: James M. Cain Geographic Locale: southern California (close to Los Angeles); the characters travel to Santa Monica and Malibu Date of Publication: 1947  |  Original Date: 1934 Setting: rural; lower class, roadside diner/filling station/motel (auto court) Motives: adultery, greed, blackmail, conspiracy, murder

Plot Summary

Frank Chambers drifts into town and gets a job with Nick Papadakis who runs a tavern and gas station twenty miles outside Los Angeles. Frank is attracted to Cora, Nick's beautiful but restless wife, and the pair quickly become lovers. Desperate to escape marriage and poverty, Cora persuades Nick that killing her husband is the answer to their problems. Their first attempt results in Nick being injured rather than killed, and unbeknown to them, Nick takes out more insurance. Frank leaves town, but he runs into the unsuspecting Nick who begs him to return to work for him. The two lovers make yet another attempt to murder Nick; this time they are successful, but a determined district attorney suspects foul play. A lawyer named Katz takes their case, but insurance policies, false confessions, and blackmail fuel shifting loyalties, and Frank and Cora must face unforeseen complications -- and ultimately each other.


Major Characters

Frank Chambers adult male, 24 years old, good-looking, looking for love, uses his fists readily, drifter, jack-of-all-trades, small-time criminal

Nick Papadakis adult male, Greek ancestry, middle-aged, trusting, naive, proprietor of a roadside gas station and diner

Cora Papadakis adult female, Nick's wife, attractive in a hard way, passionate, feels she is still paying for a mistake she made in her youth, runs the Twin Oaks Tavern with her husband

Mr. Katz adult male, little guy, about 40 years old, "even asleep he looked like he knew more than most guys awake", defense attorney, able to turn the tables on Sackett

Mr. Sackett adult male, big man, bald, "breezy manner", district attorney

Patrick Kennedy adult male, Katz's crony and eventual blackmailer of Nick and Cora

Madge Allen adult female, a woman Nick meets and travels to Mexico with while Cora is away


Weapons

wrench, automobile, electric radio (electrocution), fists


Level of Violence

Frank and Cora have a violent love relationship; they plan Nick's murder with little emotion. There are several fights, blows to the head, beatings, self-inflicted wounds for the sake of making the murder look like an accident;one attempted electrocution (dropping an electric radio into a bathtub), automobile accidents. Violent episodes are described briefly in explicit, matter-of-fact terms.


Sexuality

Frank and Cora both exhibit an earthy sexuality. Their attraction to one another is basically physical. Their passionate, adulterous affair is described explicitly, and their plan to murder Nick is a result of their physical attraction. The tone implies the inevitability of male/female chemistry. Sex between the two lovers is tinged with violence.


Gender Roles

traditional, reflective of the time period. Cora is apparently unhappily married to Nick, but not capable of leaving him on her own. She is a woman who leads men into evil, rather than the good wife/mother, but her role is a type found in fiction and film of the period. She is portrayed as a 'hell cat" and as liking sexual domination. Frank thinks women are meant to satisfy his physical needs but he doesn't want to be monogamous. Both Nick and Cora are shallow and selfish.


Ethnicity

Nick's ethnic background is looked down upon, even by his wife. Comparing him to Frank, Cora says, "You're not a little soft greasy guy with black kinky hair that he puts bay rum on every night." Her distaste for her husband is implied to derive in part from her perception that she is less "white" for being married to him. Mexicans are described as less worthy characters, and Cora is adamant that she is not "Mex" despite her dark skin.


Alcohol/Drug Abuse

the main characters use alcohol to help them in the murder; Nick uses alcohol to calm Cora.


Law Enforcement

the police are present but not highly involved; the legal system, personified by Sackett and Katz, is represented as a corrupt, flawed but relentless machine, seeming to succeed by accident.


Added Features

desperation, driven by grinding Depression-era poverty, is a crucial factor in the psychological landscape of the novel, driving Cora first to marriage and then to murder. A heavy style and noir quality permeate the novel. The first person narration and the unexpected twist at the end lift it above most of its kind.


Subject Headings

California (Los Angeles)/ Greed/ Murder/Adultery/ Poverty/ Blackmail/ Life Insurance/ Marriage/ Business Depression, 1929/


Psychological Elements

the characters are driven by varying combinations of passion, guilt, and paranoia. Cora feels she and Frank are losers: "We're just two punks, Frank... [God] gave us all that two people can ever have, and we just weren't the kind that could have it. We had all that love, and we just cracked up under it." The weight of their mutual betrayal and Frank's unfaithfulness are forces which prove fatal to their relationship and their lives. Frank, the narrator, is a con man, used to either manipulating the situation to his advantage, or being able to run away from the problem. Katz, the lawyer, plays Cora and Frank against the insurance companies and the insurance companies against Sackett, the D.A.; the truth is completely unimportant as Katz is more interested in besting Sackett. In their own self-interest, everyone is dishonest and no one trusts anybody else. The ending suggests that sooner or later, people get what's coming to them.


Film Adaptations

The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946, MGM; The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1981, Paramount; Ossessione, 1989, International Film Forum