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 5, make love on page 15, and decide to murder the obese, middle-aged Greek on page 23. Sharing the dream of getting drunk and making love without hiding, they go on what Cain calls “the Love-Rack.” He regards the concept of “the wish that comes true” as a terrifying thing. This terror becomes palpable as soon as Frank and Cora believe they have gotten away with murder and have acquired money, property, and freedom.
In the background, however, each has another dream, which mocks the shared realization of the immediate wish. Cora came to Hollywood from a small town in Iowa bemused by the dream many girls and young women of the 1930’s cherished: to become a film star. She failed, and Nick rescued her from a hash house. Basically, her values are middle-class, and above all she wants respectability, even if murder is...
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the prerequisite. An anachronism in the age of technology, though he has a certain skill as a garage mechanic, Frank desires to be always on the move, compelled by something of the spirit of the open road that Walt Whitman celebrated. For a moment, but only for a moment, he shares this romantic, idyllic vision with Cora. After the failure of their first attempt to murder Nick, they set out together for a life of wandering. In the criminal affair of these lovers, these deliberate outsiders, two central dreams of the American experience—unrestrained mobility and respectable sedentariness—and two views of the American landscape—the open road and the mortgaged house—collide. As the dreams finally betray them, they begin to turn on each other, for basically what Frank wants is Cora, the sexual dynamo, and what Cora wants is an instrument to be used to gain her ends—money and respectability.
Although the novel’s larger thematic dimensions exist in the background, as a kind of fable of the American experience, giving it a lasting value in literature, Cain is more immediately concerned with the lovers and with the action that results from their wish. This action keeps in motion certain elements that almost guarantee the reader’s interest: illicit love; murder; the smell of tainted money; sexual violence that verges on the abnormal; and the strong characterizations of such men as district attorney Sackett, eccentric lawyer Katz, and Madge Allen, who takes Frank to South America to capture jaguars.
What fascinates serious readers of literature is Cain’s technique for manipulating reader response. Not only does he almost automatically achieve certain thematic ironies inherent in his raw material, but the ironies of action are stunningly executed. Frank cons Nick out of a free meal, for example, but the con backfires when Nick cons Frank into staying on to operate the service station, a situation that eventually leaves three people dead.
Cain’s structural techniques are impressive. Each development, each scene, is controlled, and inherent in each episode is the inevitability of the next. Everything is kept strictly to the essentials; the characters exist only for the immediate action; there is almost no exposition as such. Cain is the acknowledged master of pace. Violence and sexual passion are thrust forward at a rate that is itself part of the reader’s vicarious experience. Contributing to this sense of pace is the swift rhythm of the dialogue, which also manages to keep certain undercurrents flowing. Frank’s character justifies the economy of style, the nerve-end adherence to the spine of the action. Albert Camus modeled the style of L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946) on Cain’s novel and cut his character Meursault to the pattern of Frank.
Cain has written what has been called a pure novel, for his deliberate intentions go no further than the immediate experience, brief as a motion picture is, as unified in its impression as a poem usually is. Though Frank writes his story on the eve of his execution, Cain does not even suggest the simplest moral, that crime does not pay. An intense experience, which a man tells in such a way as to make it, briefly, the reader’s experience, it is its own reason for being.