The Postman Always Rings Twice

by James M. Cain

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For years, Frank Chambers has been in trouble with the law, drifting back and forth through California and always looking for a con or a dollar. When he comes to Nick Papadakis’s restaurant, he sees the same old dreams invested in a tiny hash house just like all the restaurants down the road. The one difference is that this hash house contains Cora, a svelte, beautiful, sensuous woman who had married her Greek husband to get out of an even worse life as a waitress in Los Angeles. She had won a beauty contest in the Midwest and taken a bus to California. Finding her prospects to be nonexistent, she married a man who at least had the advantage of owning property.

The attraction between Cora and Frank is almost instantaneous, and before Frank is there a week, the two sleep together. Cora is the one who first proposes getting rid of her husband so she and Frank can run away. Frank plans to have Cora bludgeon her husband while he is in the bath. Immediately afterward, Frank is to climb a ladder into the bathroom and remove the body. From the beginning things go wrong. A passing motorcycle officer stops to chat with Frank and probably sees the ladder. Then, just when Cora hits her husband, all the lights in the restaurant go out, which is noticed by the officer as he leaves. Frank rushes in to find Cora standing in the bathroom and her husband splashing around in the water. Quickly, they patch him up and call an ambulance. They have no idea what happened to the lights. Eventually, Nick is taken to a hospital, where Frank, Cora, and several police officers watch him, no one sure what he will say. When he wakes up, he says something about slipping in the shower. The motorcycle officer is suspicious and accompanies Frank and Cora back to the restaurant to see what had happened to the fuse box. They find a dead cat there, obviously electrocuted.

Frank and Cora enjoy each other’s company while Nick is in the hospital, but when he returns one week later he tells Cora that he wants a son. She is appalled by the prospect and turns to Frank again. She tries to tempt him by promising that they can take over the restaurant once her husband is dead, but Frank is impatient to be on the road.

The second attempt at killing Nick is complex. Nick acquires tickets to a Santa Barbara street fair, to which he invites Frank and Cora. They stay in a hotel for the weekend and then head back. Cora drives because her husband is drunk and Frank is pretending to be drunk. On the way to Ventura, south of Santa Barbara, Nick passes out. Cora stops the car and she and Frank get out. Frank gets back into the car and sends it over an embankment. He tries to get out in time but is not successful. The car crashes, killing Nick and leading to a broken leg for Frank.

Frank and Cora are both charged with murder. A jail guard furnishes Frank with the name of a good lawyer—named Katz—after the police persuade Frank to sign a document saying that Cora had killed Nick and had been planning to kill him as well. This document turns them against each other, but Katz devises a scenario in which Cora, alone, will be considered guilty of the murder. Katz had read the details of a life-and-accident policy that Nick had taken out right after his “accident” in the bathtub. Because...

(This entire section contains 855 words.)

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Frank had been a “guest” in the car, Katz argues that he has the right to collect the full ten thousand dollars of the policy. Katz figures that the jury would be sympathetic toward Cora and that the manslaughter with which she is charged would be treated as a technicality. As a result, Frank is acquitted and Cora is given six months in jail, with three months suspended. Katz charges them five thousand dollars for his services.

Cora goes briefly to jail, and Frank goes to Mexico, where he meets another woman. Cora learns of this affair, and after she is released from jail, she presents Frank with proof of his infidelity. Cora, however, wants to improve the restaurant, with Frank, and make it a success. Frank wants nothing to do with it.

In an attempt at reconciliation (by this time Frank knows that Cora is pregnant), Frank and Cora go to the beach. Cora has sudden cramping, so Frank carries her to the car. On the way to the hospital, Frank tries to pass a truck and collides with an abutment. Turned around in his seat, Frank can hear the dripping of Cora’s blood on the hood of the car. She had been thrown through the windshield and was killed instantly.

A jury quickly convicts Frank of murder for the purpose of collecting on Cora’s life insurance and the restaurant and property. Nothing Katz could say this time makes any difference. Frank writes the story from death row.