Category Archives: James Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M Cain

1934. Put Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange out of your mind. That movie sucks compared to the book.

Cain’s novella is a taut tale of a drifter, Frank Chambers, who arrives at an isolated gas station on the outskirts of LA; the station is run by an old world Greek immigrant, Nick, and his young midwestern wife, Cora. Right away we learn Frank’s the kind of guy unburdened by morals or scruples.

The instant he meets young Cora he knows in his gut he’ll have her. Unfortunately for the Greek, he likes Frank and he’s slow on the uptake. It’s been tough to keep able-bodied young men employed out here in the boonies, and Frank’s a hard worker.

The first chance Nick and Cora get, they seal the deal. Then it’s sex, love?, betrayal, guilt, leading to the problem of what to do with Nick.
Cain gives us three solid characters isolated with only their flaws to keep them company. And as anyone who’s ever been on the playground knows, threesomes don’t survive. It’s always going to end up two against one.

But these characters aren’t kids, they’re adults who play for keeps. The surviving twosome though never completely shakes the one they exclude. After the initial euphoria of liberty and success, the ghost of the former friend/lover/employer/spouse returns with the residue/the smell/the bitter taste of betrayal.

Love, lust, boredom, ambition, dreams, betrayal, distrust, more betrayal, defeat. Who wins? Who loses? Was it ever more than spontaneous amoral surrender to a temporary itch?

Cain packs alot into 105 pages. No wonder he burst on the scene with this book and virtually created the noir genre.

Read it twice.

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Double Indemnity, by James Cain

1936.  A spare suspenseful story that grabs you from the opening scene.

Insurance agent Walter Huff calls on oil executive client Mr Nirdlinger to renew his policies.  Mrs Nirdlinger answers the door in her bathing suit. Huff is hooked.  The dame knows it.

What follows is a taut tale of murder, guilt, and betrayal.  Why Huff, a reasonably successful agent, falls into the clutches of the femme fatale is never really explained.  He just falls.  Hard.  And does her bidding.  He’s as successful at murder as he is at selling insurance: a knowledgeable planner who gets all the details straight.

But he can’t plan for what he doesn’t know.  And he doesn’t really know Mrs Nidlinger.

At only 115 pages, James Cain created “An American Masterpiece,” according to Ross Macdonald, another master.  Every scene, every word, is carefully crafted to lead you to the inevitable and surprising conclusion.