She got in, and took the wheel again, and me and the Greek kept on singing, and we went on. It was all part of the play. I had to be drunk, because that other time had cured me of this idea that we could pull a perfect murder. This was going to be such a lousy murder it wouldn’t even be a murder.

The pleasure in reading noir fiction comes not so much from the plots, but from the manner in which the author plays with such familiar tropes, the use of language, the characters sketched in this genre of bitterness, frustrated desires and disappointment. Of James M. Cain’s fans, one obvious pair is the Coen Brothers, whose first film Blood Simple was a love letter to his stories of barren lives competing for survival.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic noir tale that manages to sum up the themes and tropes of the genre within a single slim volume.

Frank Chambers is a drifter, a bum and an ex-con, who wanders into a hot-dog diner twenty miles outside of L.A. to try and scam a free lunch. The owner Nick Papadakis is in need of a willing employee to help run the shop and indulges this drifter in order to convince him to take the job. Frank is not falling for the false concern of the Greek and is moments away from saying no when he sees Mrs Papadakis, Cora. From that moment on Frank wants nothing more than to make her his own.

Wasting no time he manages to seduce the lonely former beauty queen from Iowa, discovering that she carries within her untapped frustrations that won’t simply settle for skipping out of town and living on the road. She sees Frank, despite her passionate love for him, as little more than a bum. Her solution to their problems is more elaborate. Kill the Greek and fake his death as an accident. Despite himself, Frank finds himself plotting Nick’s death.

This book races along to its grim finale, with its black, skewed morality never flagging for a moment. Cora is not quite Lady MacBeth, but her ambitions put the self-proclaimed smarts of Frank to shame. For a man who supposedly lives by his wits, he often manages to succumb to lust and fear often enough to be taken for a fool. Of course the most immoral character in this book of insensitive husbands, ex-cons and murderers is – a lawyer, named Katz, whose sole interest is in winning the cases he fights, regardless of the innocence, or guilt of the defendants.

The Postman Always Rings Twice has been favoured by Hollywood by adaptation to film more than once. It is easy to see why. This is a tightly plotted narrative, bound up in the self-pitying reflections of Frank, who makes for a willing confessor. It also dips into, controversial for its time, themes of sadism and rough sexuality, ensuring its place in the history books by having been banned.

Worth investigating for anyone interested in the genre.

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