Wednesday, July 2, 2008

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

Even before I started this pilgrimage to learn more about crime fiction, I knew the name James M. Cain. Didn’t really know why, but I did. And I knew his two major works: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. I have only seen the latter and will soon see the former. Ironically, earlier this spring, my wife watched Mildred Piece. I chose not to watch it only later learning that Cain wrote that one, too. Small world. Guess the crime fiction gods were trying to tell me to read Cain.

Late last year, I bought Otto Penzler’s excellent The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. (Go to NPR for a great interview with Penzler.) and Cain is represented in, of course, the Villains section. But had an audiobook of The Postman Always Rings Twice (TPART) so I started there. Oh, and for as bad as the reader was for The Switch, it was a 180-degree turn with Cain’s book. None other than Stanley Tucci read this book and it’s a testament to the power of a good reader. Tucci could have read the phone book and I’d listen.

In good pulp tradition, TPART starts right off with Frank, the handsome drifter, being thrown off a truck on which he had been sleeping. This was 1934, the depths of the Depression, and Frank was coming back to California from the border. Even those simple facts are enough to intrigue the reader. Soon, Frank shows up at a gas station/café and meets Nick Papadakis, the owner. Then, Frank sees Nick’s wife, Cora. I have a three-novel anthology of these three books. Chapter 1 of TPART is two pages long, less really because of the white space. But that’s all Cain needed to set up the entire story. Genius. I, the sometimes long-winded flowery writer envies this type of streamlined storytelling.

(Side note: In this modern world of ours, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 where we can be overly suspicious of anyone, I marvel at the fact that Nick hired Frank on the spot. I know the 1930s were a different time but holy cow! Nick didn’t know a thing about Frank. Guess Nick should have asked for some references.)

Soon, Frank and Cora get together and the inevitable happens. Two things surprised me as I went along with Tucci’s wonder reading. One, after Frank and Cora are arrested, Cain has a defense lawyer go to great lengths to get them out of jail. It happens and Cain describes it in intricate detail. This type of legal hair-splitting is foreshadowing for Double Indemnity. But the book was only 2/3 finished. What, I thought, could come next?

On the dust jacket, it reads that TPART ‘shocked and riveted the American public’ back in 1934. I have to confess that it shocked me, too, here in 2008. There is a death scene and you don’t see it coming. Sure, you might guess that it’s likely, but not from the source. And the graphic details of the death scene are pretty shocking: dripping blood that one character first mistakes for rain. Shoot! That’s graphic imagery.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Postman Always Rings Twice. And I look forward to reading more Cain, especially the shorter work scattered around. The hunt for these stories will be fun.

What I Learned As A Writer: The story is told in first person, like all good classic pulp crime novels. You really get inside the character’s head and thoughts. There’s an immediacy to it that I like. But, by the end, you actually get the fourth wall knocked down. You realize that the character actually ‘wrote’ the book. Those endings are cool.

Second, the death scene, especially the ‘raining blood’ image. In looking at the printed page, the death scene is only one paragraph. Cain does not go on and on with graphic details. He is terse almost to a fault. But he allows the reader to fill in the gaps. Too often, I think modern writing spends too much time filling in those gaps. I am a fan of allowing the reader to complete the writer’s images. Cain does it very well. I hope I can come close.

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