Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355
Narrated by Frank Chambers, a drifter who has been brought to ruin by a beautiful woman, this tale is set in the Southern California of the 1930’s. Having no better offer before him, Chambers accepts a job in a roadside cafe operated by Nick Papadakis, a Greek immigrant, and his beautiful wife, Cora.
Chambers is plunged into a chaos of greed, lust, and murder. Cora is an extremely ordinary person pushed to the breaking point by the tedium of her everyday life. Chambers is persuaded by her to take part in the murder of the kindly but dim-witted Papadakis. Hitch after hitch foils their plans, and soon they grow to hate each other. A series of plot twists keeps the reader in suspense about what will finally happen to this pair of outlaw lovers.
Typical of Cain’s work is a terse, uncluttered style, which is characterized by little description, much realistic dialogue, and brief chapters with suspenseful endings. Because of the first-person narration, the reader is forced to share in Frank Chambers’ increasing horror and bewilderment as he sinks ever deeper into an abyss of murder and deceit.
James Cain’s novels have already been adapted with great success for the screen; at least three film versions of this novel have been made. Like the crime novels of his contemporaries Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Cain’s tales of obsession and murder are especially well-suited to that dark cinematic style of the 1940’s known as film noir.
Ahnebrink, Lars. Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961. Provides useful introductory criticism.
Cain, James M. The Complete Novels. New York: Wings Books, 1994. Contains critical commentary and a comparison of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Cain’s other novels.
Hoopes, Roy. Cain. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982. The definitive biography of Cain. Includes a filmography and publications lists.
Madden, David. James M. Cain. New York: Twayne, 1970. A critical approach to Cain’s writing and influences.
Wolfe, Tom. Introduction to Cain X 3. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. A useful collection because of Wolfe’s “new realism” approach to Cain’s novels.