Tea Tonic and Toxin: Mystery and Thriller Podcast and Book Club

The Postman Always Rings Twice

by James M. Cain

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1934) is James M. Cain’s gripping, groundbreaking noir tale of passion and betrayal. In a dusty roadside diner, love and lust ignite a murderous plot and challenge conventional notions of right and wrong. As secrets unravel, two lovers are drawn deeper into a web of crime, leading to a shocking and morally ambiguous climax.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain

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The Postman Always Rings Twice: Conversation Starters

James M. Cain - Tea, Tonic & Toxin Podcast
The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain (3)
The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain (3)

Here are some questions and conversation starters. Please share your thoughts below!

The Influence of The Postman Always Rings Twice on the History of Mystery

The Postman Always Rings Twice is on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels. Most elements of the hardboiled genre are here. Dark passions. Heroes of dubious morality/amorality in a hardscrabble world. Sudden, squalid violence. Retribution. Albert Camus said the book’s themes and style influenced The Stranger. Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) has talked about the impact Cain’s dialogue had on him (full of vernacular; true to character). Cain featured the perpetrator of the crime, rather than the detective or law enforcement. Crime novelists owe a lot to Cain.

The book feels like another major departure from the types of books we’ve been reading — the brutality, the psychopathy, the sex. What was the context of this development? What was going on in American fiction? Is Cain the first to do this?

Did you like any of the characters? How did it feel to read the book from inside the killer’s head? For Sarah it was difficult, like having a one way conversation with a crazy person who wants to tell you all about themselves, thinks they have it figured out, but you don’t agree that they do.

Ethnicity and Prejudice

In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nick’s ethnic background is looked down upon, even by his wife. 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.

Cora doesn’t want anyone to see her as “Mex”: “I may have dark hair and look a little bit that way, but I’m just as white as you are. You want to get along good around here, you won’t forget that.”

Desperation, driven by grinding Depression-era poverty, is key to the psychological landscape of the novel, driving Cora first to marriage and then to murder. She went into the marriage assuming that Nick was unchangeable (and maybe he was), but it was the burden she was willing to bear to get out of the hash house.

Cora also blames her class as to why she couldn’t make it in Hollywood: “And when I began to talk, up there on the screen, they knew me for what I was, and so did I. A cheap Des Moines trollop, that had as much chance in pictures as a monkey has. Not as much. A monkey, anyway, can make you laugh. All I did was make you sick.”

Wrong Crime, Right Result

As in Malice Aforethought, the protagonists plot to kill for love (or lust) and money, with the readers’ full awareness every step of the way. These are suspense stories. We follow the fateful attractions of Frank and Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice through every stage of their conspiracy to commit perfect murders and through the aftermath as they try to avoid detection or punishment.

Are Frank and Cora Psychopaths in The Postman Always Rings Twice?

Frank always has a story at the ready, starting with the very first story he tells Nick about the guy in a Cadillac who’s going to pick him up — and who has the cash to pay for the meal.

He and Cora also seem to have little conscience or empathy. So … are they psychopaths?

“Psychopaths are distinguished by a nearly complete inability to form genuine emotional attachments to others; a compensating tendency to form artificial and shallow relationships, which the psychopath cynically exploits or manipulates to benefit himself; a corresponding ability to appear glib and even charming to others; … and a tendency to carefully plan criminal activities to avoid detection.” (Brittanica)

Love, Sex, and Desire in The Postman Always Rings Twice

In The Postman Always Rings Twice, love, sex/desire, and violence seem inextricably connected. What did you think about it? Was it love? Was it lust? A violent passing fancy?

“Then I saw her. … Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” (Ch 1)

“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.” (Ch 2) “Next day I was alone with her for a minute, and swung my fist up against her leg so hard it nearly knocked her over.” (Ch 3)

“I hauled off and hit her in the eye as hard as I could. … She was down there, and the breath was roaring in the back of my throat like I was some kind of animal … Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it.”

“What did she have that makes me feel that way about her? I don’t know. She wanted something, and she tried to get it. She tried all the wrong ways, but she tried. I don’t know what made her feel that way about me, because she knew me. She called it on me plenty of times, that I wasn’t any good. I never really wanted anything, but her. But that’s a lot. I guess it’s not often that a woman even has that.”

“The judge said he would give me exactly the same consideration he would show any other mad dog.”

Cora sees not turning Frank into Sackett as some kind of commitment to their relationship. To test Frank’s commitment, she gives him the chance to drown her in the ocean: “So the devil has left me. But has it left you?”

The Postman Always Rings Twice: What Does the Title Mean?

The characters are driven by passion, guilt, and paranoia. Frank would “wake up, and that crack would be in my ears, that awful crack that the Greek’s head made when I hit it.”

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 that prove fatal to their relationship and their lives. Frank, the narrator, is a con man, used to manipulating the situation to his advantage or being able to run away from the problem. Everyone is dishonest and selfish; no one trusts anyone else.

“God is up there laughing at us.” “The hell he is. Well, we’re laughing at him too, aren’t we? He put up a red stop sign for us, and we went past it. God kissed us on the brow.”

One last time, Frank and Cora devour have mad, violent sex (“The devil got his money’s worth that night”). Then the “postman” rings again.

The ending suggests that, sooner or later, people get what’s coming to them.

The Closing Lines of The Postman Always Rings Twice

“I’ve been thinking about Cora. Do you think she knows I didn’t do it? After what we said in the water, you would think she would know it. But that’s the awful part, when you monkey with murder. Maybe it went through her head, when the car hit, that I did it anyhow. That’s why I hope I’ve got another life after this one. Father McConnell says I have, and I want to see her. I want her to know that it was all so, what we said to each other, and that I didn’t do it.”

Why is it so important to Frank that Cora knows he didn’t falter in the end? Does this desire ultimately signal his love for her? And why does Frank want his story published after he dies?

What Do You Think of the Film Adaptations?

Cain sold the movie rights to The Postman Always Rings Twice to MGM for $25,000 (nearly $500,000 today). The 1946 film, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, is a noir classic and probably the best known of the adaptations. The 1981 film is from a screenplay by David Mamet, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.

Which version do YOU prefer?

The Postman Always Rings Twice: Weigh In

Share your thoughts about the book (or about mysteries, detective stories, thrillers, or our podcast), and we may give you an on-air shoutout AND send you the world’s best sticker! (It is a pretty sweet sticker.)

About Tea, Tonic & Toxin

Tea, Tonic, and Toxin is a book club and podcast for people who love mysteries, detective stories, thrillers, introspection, and good conversation. Each month, your hosts, Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters, will dive into the history of mystery to get a firsthand look at how the mystery genre evolved.

Along the way, we’ll entertain ideas, prospects, theories, doubts, and grudges, along with fabulous guests. And we hope to entertain you, dear friend. We want you to experience the joys of reading some of the best mysteries and thrillers ever written.

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