Three related genres that developed in the United States during the 1930’s were the hard-boiled private detective novel, which departed from the genteel English novel of detection; the proletarian novel, which derived from European naturalism and American realism; and the tough-guy novel, which derived from both of those strands. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929) and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) are perhaps the best-known examples of the private detective novel. B. Traven’s The Death Ship (1934) is a good example of the proletarian novel, and Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) belongs to the minor classics of tough-guy novels. These and novels like them expressed the mood of American society during the Depression, and they influenced motion pictures, affected the tone and attitude of more serious writers, and inspired some European novelists during the 1940’s. The quintessence of these genres is represented by James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Although Frank Chambers, the twenty-four-year-old narrator of Cain’s novel, belongs to that legion of unemployed who became tramps of the road, hoboes of the rails, and migrant workers, Cain is not deliberately interested in depicting the social ills of his time; if there is an attack on conditions that produced a man like Frank, it is only implicit. Frank is an easygoing fellow, remarkably free of bitterness, even when given cause; although he commits murder and pistol whips a blackmailer, he is not willfully vicious. A spontaneous creature of action whose psychological nature readily accommodates ambivalent attitudes, he can be fond of Nick Papadakis and weep at his funeral after having seduced Cora and twice attempted to kill Nick.
Although this novel is concerned, as are many of Cain’s novels, with murder and other forms of violence, it cannot be classified as a detective tale. Cain, like the readers he has in mind, is fascinated by the intricacies of civil and insurance law, but he is primarily interested in presenting an inside view of the criminal act. However, Frank is no gangster and Cora no moll; they are not far removed in status or aspiration from the average person who reads the book.
Frank and Cora lie down in the great American dreambed of the 1920’s, only to wake up in the 1930’s in a living nightmare. Only a lurid decade could have produced such a lurid relationship and such a lurid tale. When they meet at Nick’s Twin Oaks Tavern on a highway outside Los Angeles, Frank has just been thrown off a truck, having sneaked into the back for a ride up the coast from Tijuana, and Cora is washing dishes in the restaurant. To demonstrate the deep passion of their encounter, Cain has them meet on page...
(The entire section is 1146 words.)