The Postman Always Rings Twice (novel)

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The Postman Always Rings Twice
first edition cover
First edition cover
Author James M. Cain
Country United States
Language English
Genre Crime novel
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover)
ISBN 978-0-679-72325-7

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a 1934 crime novel by James M. Cain.

The novel was quite successful and notorious upon publication, and is regarded as one of the more important crime novels of the 20th century. Fast-moving and brief (only about 100 pages long, depending on the edition), the novel's mix of sexuality and violence was startling in its time, and saw the book banned in Boston.[1]

It is included in the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list.[2]

The novel has been adapted as a motion picture seven times (see Adaptations). The 1946 version is probably the best known, and is regarded as an important film noir.


The story is narrated in the first person by Frank Chambers, a young drifter who stops at a rural California diner for a meal, and ends up working there. The diner is operated by a young, beautiful woman, Cora, and her much older husband, Nick Papadakis, sometimes called "the Greek".

There is an immediate attraction between Frank and Cora, and they begin a passionate affair with sadomasochistic qualities (when they first embrace, Cora commands Frank to bite her lip, and Frank does so hard enough to draw blood).

Cora, a femme fatale figure, is tired of her situation, married to a man she does not love, and working at a diner that she wishes to own and improve. Frank and Cora scheme to murder the Greek in order to start a new life together without Cora losing the diner.

They plan on striking Nick's head and making it seem he fell and drowned in the bathtub. Cora fells Nick with a solid blow, but, due to a sudden power outage and the appearance of a policeman, the scheme fails. Nick recovers and because of retrograde amnesia does not suspect that he narrowly avoided being killed.

Determined to kill Nick, Frank and Cora fake a car accident. They ply Nick with wine, strike him on the head, and crash the car. Frank and Cora are injured. The local prosecutor suspects what has actually occurred, but doesn't have enough evidence to prove it. As a tactic intended to get Cora and Frank to turn on one another, he charges only Cora with the crime of Nick's murder, coercing Frank to sign a complaint against her. Cora, furious and indignant, insists upon offering a full confession detailing both their roles. Her lawyer tricks her into dictating that confession to a member of his own staff. Cora, believing her confession made, returns to prison. Though Cora would be sure to learn of the trickery, a few valuable hours are gained. The lawyer uses the time to manipulate those financially interested in the trial to have their private detective recant his testimony, which was the final remaining weapon in the prosecution's arsenal. The state is forced to grant Cora a plea agreement, under which she is given a suspended sentence and no jail time.

Frank and Cora patch things up and plan a happy-family future. Then Cora is killed in a car accident while Frank is driving. The book ends with Frank, from death row, summarizing the events that followed, explaining that he was wrongly convicted of having murdered Cora. The text, he hopes, will be published after his execution.

Explanation of title[edit]

The title is something of a non sequitur in that nowhere in the novel does a postman appear, nor is one even alluded to. The title's meaning has therefore often been the subject of speculation. William Marling, for instance, suggested that Cain may have taken the title from the sensational 1927 case of Ruth Snyder. Snyder was a woman who, like Cora in Postman, had conspired with her lover to murder her husband. It is recognized that Cain used the Snyder case as an inspiration for his 1943 novel Double Indemnity;[3] Marling believes it was also a model for the plot and the title of Postman. In the real-life case, Snyder said she had prevented her husband from discovering the changes she had made to his life insurance policy by telling the postman to deliver the policy's payment notices only to her, and instructing him to ring the doorbell twice as a signal indicating he had such a delivery for her.[4]

Historian Judith Flanders, however, has interpreted the title as a reference to postal customs in the Victorian era. When mail (post) was delivered, the postman knocked once to let the householders know it was there: they did not need to reply. When there was a telegram, however, which had to be handed over personally, he knocked twice, so that the household would know they needed to answer the door. Telegrams were expensive, and were usually the bringers of bad news: so a postman knocking (later, ringing) twice signaled trouble was on the way. [5]

In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title of The Postman Always Rings Twice came from a discussion he had had with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. According to Cain, Lawrence spoke of the anxiety he felt when waiting for the postman to bring him news on a submitted manuscript—specifically noting that he would know when the postman had finally arrived because he always rang twice. Cain then lit upon that phrase as a title for his novel. Upon discussing it further, the two men agreed such a phrase was metaphorically suited to Frank's situation at the end of the novel.

With the "postman" being God, or Fate, the "delivery" meant for Frank was his own death as just retribution for murdering Nick. Frank had missed the first "ring" when he initially got away with that killing. However, the postman rang again, and this time the ring was heard: Frank is wrongly convicted of having murdered Cora, and then sentenced to die. The theme of an inescapable fate is further underscored by the Greek's escape from death in the lovers' first murder attempt, only to be done in by their second one.

In his biography of Cain, Roy Hoopes recounts the conversation between Cain and Lawrence, only he extends Lawrence's remarks. He did not say merely that the postman always rang twice, but rather that he was sometimes so anxious waiting for the postman that he would go into his backyard to avoid hearing his ring. The tactic inevitably failed, Lawrence continued, because if the postman's first ring was not noticed, his second one, even from the backyard, would be.[6]

This is the explanation[which?] offered in the 1946 film adaptation of the novel.


The Postman Always Rings Twice has been adapted numerous times, into a film seven times, an opera, and two plays:



  1. ^ "The Postman Always Rings Twice". 
  2. ^ "100 Best Novels". 
  3. ^ MacKellar, Landis. (2006) The "Double Indemnity" Murder: Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray & New York's Crime of the Century, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0-8156-0824-1
  4. ^ "Marling, William, Hard-Boiled Fiction, Case Western Reserve University, updated 2 August 2001
  5. ^ Judith Flanders, The Victorian House: Daily Life from Childbirth to Deathbed, London: HarperCollins, 2003 ISBN 0-00-713188-7, p.106
  6. ^ Roy Hoopes, Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982 ISBN 0-8093-1361-8
  7. ^ Master Theatre Production Profile

External links[edit]

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