“They threw me off the hay truck around noon.” It’s one of the more memorable opening lines in American fiction, not as well known as “Call me Ishmael,” maybe, but right up there with “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” It introduces us to a footloose young thug named Frank Chambers who will soon be plotting with a woman named Cora Papadakis to murder her husband and inherit his roadside diner situated just outside Depression-era Los Angeles. Its author, James M. Cain, had wanted to call his little novel Bar-B-Q, but thankfully a friend helped convince him to call it The Postman Always Rings Twice instead.
The book first appeared in 1934 and is still in print in Vintage paperback. Writing about it in 1981, Cain biographer Roy Hoopes called The Postman Always Rings Twice
probably the first of the big commercial books in American publishing, the first novel to hit for what might be called the grand slam of the book trade: a hard-cover best seller, a paperback best-seller, syndication, play, and movie. It scored more than once in most of these mediums and still sells on and on, even today.
And that was just for starters. A year after Postman came Double Indemnity, another Cain tale in which a love-struck pair set out to kill the woman’s husband. It began literary life as an eight-part serial in Liberty magazine before assuming book form. Like its predecessor, it created a national sensation. “As the serial progressed week by week,” writes Hoopes, “people across the country were reported standing in lines at the newsstands waiting for the next issue to appear.”
Double Indemnity first appeared between the covers of a book as one of three novellas in an anthology called Three of a Kind, published by Knopf in 1943. But it exists today as a Vintage paperback in its own right, almost identical in length to Postman, the former coming in at a brisk 125 pages, the latter at an even brisker 120. Both proved once and for all that a book needn’t be a doorstopper in size to attract a sizable number of readers. Indeed, Cain’s double-barreled success with these two little shockers was such that it would cause detective-novelist Ross McDonald, himself no slouch in the field of hard-nosed prose, to say of him later—in a quote Knopf still uses to promote the two books—that he had “won unfading laurels with a pair of native American masterpieces, Postman and Double Indemnity, back to back.”
So who was James Mallahan Cain, this new two-fisted titan of the typewriter? Well, in many ways he was something of an odd duck. Big and burly, with bushy, John L. Lewis-like eyebrows, he was said by one Hollywood wag to look like an “ex-sheriff of San Bernardino.” Even Cain, not to be outdone, once described himself as resembling “a dispatcher for a long-haul trucking firm.” His father had been the President of Washington College in Chesterton, Maryland, on the languid Eastern Shore, where Cain was born. The younger Cain had wanted to be an opera singer, of all things, before his mother, herself a trained singer, talked him out of it on the common-sense grounds that he didn’t have a good enough voice. After a series of odd jobs, each of which he hated, and an overseas tour in the U.S. Army in the World War, he went to work as a newspaper reporter, first in Baltimore and later in New York. He wrote editorials for Walter Lippmann at the New York World and, at the same time, essays and other pieces for H.L. Mencken at American Mercury. Both Lippmann and Mencken became his lifelong friends.
A late bloomer as a published novelist, Cain was 42 when Postman came out. He had gone out to Hollywood on an impulse with the idea of becoming a successful screenwriter, but that didn’t work out so well. In 17 years of scriptwriting in Hollywood he managed to get his name attached to only three films, in each case a mere partial credit shared with other writers. But California turned out to be Cain’s kind of place. He liked it out there—liked the sunshine, liked the people, liked the food. He also liked the grammatical way Californians spoke, even the poorly educated ones. And it was that California voice that he gave to Frank Chambers, the first-person narrator of the little long-shot novel he had begun tinkering with in his spare time between picture assignments, and which would eventually become The Postman Always Rings Twice.
It is of course hugely ironic that Cain should have failed as a screenwriter, since both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, with other hands writing the scripts, ended up being made into two of the most commercially and critically successful movies in the history of Hollywood. So successful were they that they have been credited with changing the very nature of Hollywood movie-making by ushering in the so-called film noir era, which swept the studios in the 1930s and 1940s and has made Hollywood the indisputable film capital of the world. A further oddity resides in the fact that although Postman preceded Double Indemnity in print, Double Indemnity preceded Postman as a film; the “Hays office” censors of the period refused to approve a Postman script for nearly ten years over concerns about the story’s sexual steaminess. In neither case, of course, was the murder at the core of both stories an issue.
Of the two efforts, Postman is probably the better novel. It is artfully structured and moves more relentlessly toward its climax. Some of its early scenes, in which Frank and Cora plot their crime, sizzle with tension and sexual innuendo. Double Indemnity, on the other hand, may have made the better movie, largely because Raymond Chandler was brought on board to write the dialogue after director Billy Wilder determined that Cain’s own words worked better on the page than on the silver screen. The film’s opening-scene mano a mano between Fred MacMurray, as the insurance agent Walter Neff, and Barbara Stanwyck, as the murderous housewife Phyllis Dietrichson, is an oft-revisited classic. In the print version of Double Indemnity, Cain calls his characters “Walter Huff” and “Phyllis Nirdlinger.” (What ever possessed him to name a character “Nirdlinger” we can only guess.)
There is an insurance angle to Postman, just as there is to Double Indemnity. Frank, in telling us at one point of his failed plan to kill Cora’s husband in the bathroom, says he got the idea when he read in a newspaper that “most accidents occur right in people’s own bathtubs.” Pursuing this, he learns that Nick Papadakis is carrying a $10,000 accident policy on his own life. And it is probable that doing the research on this is what gave Cain the idea for the plot of Double Indemnity, because midway through Postman Frank runs down a list of the provisions in Nick’s accident policy and concludes it with “how his widow would get $10,000 if he was killed in an accident, and $20,000 if the accident was on a railroad train.” This last is the famous “double indemnity” clause of the second novel, and is based on the actuarial fact that railroad trains, like the one Phyllis’s husband is ticketed by her and Walter to “fall” off the rear car of, were, in those days, by far the safest means of travel.
It was one of Cain’s strengths as a novelist that he could make drama out of such seemingly dry subjects as insurance practices and accounting procedures. He knew things. His good education and his newspaper background had led him to pursue information in all sorts of fields, and he had the kind of mind that enjoyed understanding how things work for the sake of it. He was also, as Gertrude Stein once famously said of Ezra Pound, something of a “village explainer.” Care to know how an insurance agent can best insinuate his way past a housekeeper and into a prospective client’s living room? Cain could tell you. Care to know where to find the best live pumas, and what to feed them, and how to train them? Cain could tell you that, too. Care to know how to convince a coroner’s jury that the deceased deserves burial in consecrated ground? Cain knew how. And he is usually able to make the telling, if not compelling, at least more than mildly interesting.
It was also Cain’s bright idea to have both of his stories told from the point of view of the guilty parties. We view each case, in other words, as the criminal views it, not as the private detective or the law-enforcement officials would view it. There’s no Sherlock Holmes looking with suave surmise at the doings of some lowly miscreant, no world-weary Phillip Marlowe offering his wry commentary on the tawdriness of it all. As David Madden puts it in his excellent critical study of Cain,
Character and reader move in the realm of the forbidden, encountering and violating taboos in a swift series of actions. In our wishes, our various cravings are satisfied—healthy animal ones made obscene by social taboos, as well as abnormal ones. Normally, neither character nor reader ventures into such territory; but, for the duration of the novel, that is where they happen to be.1
As writing, it’s something new and different, and, combined with the rapid pace Cain brings to his narratives, it makes for lively reading. One Saturday Review critic, speaking of this thrill factor in a one-sentence blurb that itself became well known, went so far as to assert that, “No one has ever stopped in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books.”
In both novels it is the female character, interestingly, who initiates the action, sets the plotting of the crime in motion. What today’s feminists might make of that is perhaps worth pondering. Cora in Postman is a failed movie actress who longs to be somebody. Owning and running her murdered husband’s diner, she feels, will make her respectable, a person of stature. As their scheme begins to unravel, though, she begins to understand the contradiction that lies in being a respectable murderer. “We’re just two punks, Frank,” she says. Waxing poetic, she compares their love to
a big airplane engine, that takes you through the sky, right up to the top of the mountain. But when you put it in a Ford, it just shakes it to pieces. That’s what we are, Frank, a couple of Fords. God is up there laughing at us.
Fords or not, though, what follows is a scene of wild sexual abandon (“Bite me, Frank! Bite me!”), which the unpoetic Frank sums up for us at chapter’s end with, “She looked like the great grandmother of every whore in the world. The devil got his money’s worth that night.”
Unlike Cora, who has redeeming qualities, Phyllis in Double Indemnity is pure evil, right down to her Hell-hued toenails. In the movie she wears a dainty ankle bracelet on her left foot, a brilliant, Billy Wilderish touch; when you think of the scene you think of that ankle bracelet. A trained nurse in a former life, she had once murdered an entire family for their money. We learn about this late in the novel, in a lengthy, tying-up-the-loose-ends scene in which Keyes, Walter Huff’s insurance agency colleague, tells him memorably, “You got yourself tangled up with an Irrawaddy cobra, that’s all. That woman—it makes my blood run cold just to think of her. She’s a pathological case, that’s all. The worst I ever heard of.” What is so especially dangerous about an “Irrawaddy” cobra, as opposed to all the other kinds, Cain leaves up to the reader’s imagination. Keyes was played in the movie by veteran character actor Edward G. Robinson; as the steely-eyed claims investigator relentlessly on the trail of the two culprits, he stole the show.
Like Raymond Chandler, Cain was a master of the tough-guy bon mot. If Chandler could write (in Farewell, My Lovely) that one of his female characters was “a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window,” Cain could match him (in Postman) with, “Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.” Also from Cain (in Double Indemnity), “I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.” In Cain’s world, even the women talk tough. Here’s Cora in Postman explaining why she married her elderly Greek husband: “You spend two years [waitressing] in a Los Angeles hash house and you’ll take the first guy that’s got a gold watch.”
Cain’s place in the American literary canon is still uncertain. Everyone agrees he broke new ground, but many here still wonder, was it “art”? In Europe, however, there has never been any doubt. Europeans, especially the French, signed on to Cain’s brand of literary mayhem from the start. Albert Camus was a fan, going so far as to pattern his own little “existentialist” masterpiece The Stranger after The Postman Always Rings Twice. Many critics have noted the similarities. As Madden puts it in his critical study, both Frank Chambers and The Stranger’s central character, Meursault, “simply satisfy their animal needs: they eat, drink, smoke, and fornicate.” “A Cain character, like a good existentialist, is what he does,” Madden writes, quoting a fellow critic. Both Meursault and Chambers narrate their stories in a simple, straightforward manner, without reflection, and both novels end with a murder, a trial, and the narrator waiting for death in his cell. On the other hand, though, as Madden also maintains, “Almost everything Camus takes, or seems to take, from Cain he transforms into something better. Using a tough-guy novel of action as a model, Camus wrote a serious novel of character and the human predicament.”
But Cain wasn’t interested in writing a “serious” novel, or so he told various interviewers. He claimed to hold a jaundiced view of “serious” novels as a species; he thought them smug and pretentious. He agreed with all who said it that Ernest Hemingway, someone he was often compared to because of the lean, minimalist nature of both men’s prose, was a better writer than he was. “Why kid myself?” he said in a letter to his editor, Blanche Knopf. “He is. And it seems to me by saying so I forestall a lot of jeers and catcalls in the first place and create an impression of candor…”
Cain has been credited along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler with originating the roman noir, or dark novel. The three were almost exact contemporaries, and all three pursued their craft and set much of their fiction on the West Coast. It’s another oddity that California, land of sunshine and oranges, should be the place where the American novel took a somber turn. And the California locus for shadowy tales didn’t stop with Cain. Robert Townes’s screenplay for the 1974 movie Chinatown, set in California in the mid-1930s, is about as noiresque as it gets.
Chandler and Hammett did their apprentice work in Black Mask, a popular detective pulp-fiction magazine of the time, and Cain did his on the Hollywood back lots and in Mencken’s magazine. Both Hammett and Chandler followed a traditional formula, dating back at least to Arthur Conan Doyle, in which a “sleuth” unravels a mystery and thereby solves a crime. Hammett named his most famous sleuth “Sam Spade” and Chandler called his “Phillip Marlowe.” But Cain rejected the detective-novel formula. His leading men in Postman and Double Indemnity were a bootless young vagabond and an insurance salesman, respectively. What Cain brought to the mix was sex. It interested him, and because it interested him, perhaps, he was particularly good at writing about it. He admitted to biographer Hoopes and others that sooner or later in everything he wrote the material just naturally trended toward the “censorable.” Hammett and Chandler also put fetching females in the paths of Spade and Marlowe, of course, but compared to Cain’s their male-female interactions were downright demure.
But it’s not the sex that makes Cain still a powerful read. One might think that, after all the bodily fluid-soaked crime and forensic medicine dramas that contemporary fiction consumers expose themselves to, Cain’s offerings would come across as meek and passé. But they’re not. It’s not the stories he tells that still do the trick but the way he tells them.
Just why the roman noir should have arrived on the national and world scene when it did is itself a mystery. World War I, with the unprecedented carnage it produced and the deep disillusionment it fostered, probably had something to do with it. Panglossian optimism about the way the world works went out the window that day at the Battle of the Somme when more than 57,000 British soldiers lost their lives in a single attack. Prohibition probably contributed, too, by turning everyone who thirsted for a glass of beer into a potential criminal and elevating to the status of cultural hero bootleggers like Al Capone. Then there was the Depression, of course, which had arrived with a Crash in 1929 and showed little hope, even by the mid-1930s, of going away. Desperate times create desperate characters, and so it did then: a pair of witless young bank robbers named Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, as well as a debonair ladies’ man turned gangster named John Dillinger, come to mind. Add to all that the movies of the day, which had finally begun to talk, and the growing urbanization of the Western world, with ever more people crowding into the cities, bumping up against each other, generating friction, fear, and felonious imagination. Crime as we know it today is largely an urban phenomenon. Nobody rustles cattle anymore, or steals horses.
And so along came Cain. Over the course of a long writing career James M. Cain published some 16 novels, give or take a couple. Several of them, such as Mildred Pierce (which was also made into a successful movie starring Joan Crawford) and Serenade (about an opera singer bedeviled by his homosexuality) were well received. Others, such as Sinful Woman and The Root of His Evil, were published by Avon Books as what used to be called “paperback originals” and eventually took their place in the back racks of local drugstores everywhere. But it was the pair of tiny bombshells he had published in quick succession back in the 1930s for which he will always be remembered. The Postman Always Rings Twice was his left to the gut, Double Indemnity his right to the jaw. Together they had sent the whole country reeling as he delivered them—Biff! Bam!—some eighty years ago now, back to back.
1Madden, James M. Cain (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1987).