April 27, 2012

Book: The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:09 pm

The story is interesting enough, in its own way. But the style does not satisfy. More on this, later in this review.

The story is that of Frank Chambers, who is a vagabond and “a bum” to use the words of some of the other characters in the novel itself. He finds himself footloose in the gas station of Nick Papadakis. What holds him back there  is the beauty of Nick’s wife, Cora Papadakis nee Smith. Cora is dissatisfied with her `greasy Greek’ husband, and falls for Frank.

They first plan to kill Nick and make it look like an accident. Inept planning botches the scheme, which is abandoned. Then they plan to elope but back out of that scheme too. Cora is resigned to live with the Greek and Frank departs for other pursuits.

But he cannot forget Cora and comes back, and they plan to complete what they started by killing Nick, and succeed this time. The inept handling again almost lands them both in jail and they escape by a hair’s breadth. The prosecutor Sacket was a demon but was defeated by the greater wiles of their attorney, Katz.

Well, Nick and Cora now differ on how to lead their life together, and the idyllic relationship starts to turn sour, with mutual suspicions and recriminations. Add in other affairs, and a blackmail, and the story really gets convoluted. In the end, there is an ironic twist, that is supposed to make you sit bolt upright and go `Aha!’

However, the 1934 pulp style jars and takes away much of the enjoyment from reading a book. The book is filled with cliché and inane conversations and the whole thing reads like some Dick Tracy comic strip in style and depth of analysis. How is this for a sample?

Frank desires Cora and she says no. So he hits her hard, so that she bleeds. Then instantly she falls for him. He betrays her every chance he gets because Sackett hookwinked him into it. He indulges in extramarital affairs the moment Cora’s back is turned. If this was intended to portray weakness of the human mind, it just ends up irritating the reader because you lose your sympathy with almost all characters instantly and you do not find anyone else whom you could even vaguely respect or empathize with.

It is interesting that the book was considered so risqué in 1934, when it was written, that it was altogether banned in Canada.

It is also interesting that the author, James M. Cain, tried his hand in writing movie scripts, failed, and then started as an author for books. He found that almost all of his major books were turned into blockbuster movies subsequently!

Incidentally, in the movie version, they seem to have taken her maiden surname (Smith) and given it to her husband, thereby making him Nick Smith and presumably “not a greasy Greek”.

You may argue that it is unfair to judge a 1934 book now  as dull, because times and style have changed a lot. Yes, but truly great books will still be interesting after all these years (See the review of Great Expectations earlier for an example.)

This one is not a truly great book and I can award it only a 4/10.

— Krishna


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