Monday, November 28, 2011

Stephen King's 11/22/63

I admit it. I got hooked. I let Stephen King work his magic on me. I sat up until one o’clock in the morning to finish King’s massive new tale 11/22/63. It was worth every minute. Stephen King is a master story teller. He may be the greatest living American writer. Since the publication of Carrie in the 1970s, King has told many grisly and spooky tales which have kept many readers awake at night.
11/22/63 is the story of a Maine schoolteacher named Jake Epping. (Other than Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, no fictional world is as fully realized as Stephen King’s Maine. Like Faulkner, King weaves references to his earlier novels into this story). Jake’s alcoholic wife has recently divorced him, and Jake is all alone in the world. Jake teaches the adult G.E.D. classes. A janitor named Hank writes an essay telling about how his alcoholic father murdered Hank’s mother and siblings one Halloween night and how it changed his life for the worse. Jake has a friend named Al who runs a diner. Al has discovered that his pantry is really a portal to the past. Like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe if you keep walking toward the wall in Al’s pantry you eventually end in up in another world. Except in this case, it's always the same day in 1958. Al has been using the pantry doorway to go buy meat at 1958 prices and bring it back and sell it in 2011. Finally, Al gets the idea that he should use his doorway to the past for a greater purpose. What if he could go back in time and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963?
Al has gone back and tried to stop the assassination, but has contracted lung cancer. Even though he has spent years in the past, when he returns to the future it is only two minutes after he left. Al recruits his friend Jake to take up his mission to save John F. Kennedy. Part of Jake's mission is to make sure that Oswald acted alone and that there was no conspiracy. King is convinced that Oswald acted alone. (King realizes that a conspiracy is actually comforting. A conspiracy means that a group of smart people planned the death of the President. The thought that one nut with a cheap rifle can change history is what's scary).
King spends the first several hundred pages of this 842 page novel setting his hook on the reader. You come to care about Jake and care about the subplots which King has masterfully woven into the story. 11/22/63 may also contain one of the best love stories of the last few years. While waiting to confront Oswald, Jake falls in love with a woman from the past. In fact, he may be willing to sacrifice the future for her . . .
As we all know from watching Star Trek, monkeying about with the past is a tricky business. Jake Epping finds out exactly how tricky. With his left-leaning politics, King realizes that keeping Kennedy alive is a liberal dream. King is also aware of the old adage, “be careful what you want, you might get it.”
King spends a good bit of time feeling nostalgic for the late fifties and early sixties. Everybody smoked without guilt. The milkman delivered real milk and real cream. Gas was cheap and plentiful and big gas guzzling cars were cool. The food tasted better and people left their back doors unlocked. There is also a dark side to what King calls “The Land of Ago.” There is racism and sexism and you can’t get instant answers from the internet. All in all, King likes the Land of Ago a lot better than “The Land of Ahead.” The Bad Catholic advice, gentle reader, is go get hooked. 11/22/63 is a haunting book that will give you much to ponder long after the telling of the tale is done. Let Fisherman King dangle the bait in front of you, and swallow it hook, line and sinker. Then sit back and let him reel you in. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have been caught by a master.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Havah: The Story of Eve



The “Christian novel” has been the subject of much derision, including some gentle knocking from yours truly in a previous post.  However, the usual flaws of the “Christian novel” (which include plastic cardboard cutout characters who walk around holding Bible study at every opportunity) are not present in the book presently under consideration.  In fact, I cannot find enough good things to say about Havah: The Story of Eve (B&H Publishing Group, 2010) by Tosca Lee.

Author Tosca Lee

The basis of Ms. Lee’s novel is the first five chapters of the Book of Genesis.  Taking the Biblical narrative seriously, Lee weaves a compelling portrait of what the Garden of Eden must have been like for Adam and Eve (“Havah”) before the first sin was committed.  Her descriptions of life in paradise are imaginative and well conceived.  Ms. Lee’s well written conception of how the world must have changed after the Fall from Grace is some of the best imaginative fiction which I have read in a long time.

 An imaginative photo of author Tosca Lee

In scene after scene, Ms. Lee scores a home run in her narrative which Bible readers will find familiar but also very new.  The reader comes away with the feeling that if the Bible is taken literally this must be very close to what it was really like.

Tosca Lee with the "cowgirl" look

After the initial sin, Adam and Eve begin being repulsed by the killing of animals for clothing and the eating of meat.  As time goes on, however, these things become commonplace.  As their long lives go on, the memories of the Garden of Paradise grow dim.  As their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren become farther removed from God, sin and troubles increase.  And these troubles include disease and natural disasters.  Ms. Lee has brilliantly concocted a story in which the reader is made acutely aware that the world that we live in is not like God intended it to be.


Author Tosca Lee with the "Elvira Mistress of the Dark" look.

I was fascinated that the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempted Havah is described as a dragon.  This explains how God then changes the Serpent from a creature who walked and flew to a creature that wriggles on the ground.  Although dragons no longer exist, the memory of the dragon stays in the human consciousness to be incorporated into legend and depicted in art.  The dragon is depicted as a creature which was merely the manifestation of the fallen angel Satan.


Ms. Lee also weaves a lot of good theology into her narrative.  The idea is put forward that there is no morality without choice and, therefore, the tempter had to be in the garden of paradise.  Adam and Eve had to be given a choice whether to obey God or rebel, otherwise they had no true free will.  Their bad decision forever binds their descendants and warps the world they live in.


Being written from the first person point of view of the first woman, some will probably describe Havah as "chick lit."  Indeed, with its descriptions of what it is like to be pregnant, this book could probably only have been written by a woman.  In the relationship between Adam and Eve, the novel does have a kind of  "romance novel" feel to it.  However, this is definitely not a Harlequin Romance novel.



According to Wikepedia, the author, Tosca Lee, “was born on December 1969 in Roanoke, Virginia to Sang Moon Lee and Laura Moncrief.  Her father, a first-generation Korean who initially entertained dreams of becoming an opera tenor before he went on to establish himself as a leading academic in the area of business management, named her after his favorite Puccini opera, “Tosca.”  Ms. Lee was the winner of the Mrs. Nebraska beauty pageant for 1996 and a runner up in the Mrs. U.S.A. pageant.  As well as being a writer and a model, she also works for Gallup.  Read an interview with Tosca Lee here.

Ms. Lee is obviously a woman of many faces.

In traditional rabbinic Judaism, Midrash is a storytelling technique that seeks to understand the
Biblical text by telling stories to fill in the gaps left in the Biblical narrative.  It seems to me that this is what Ms. Lee’s novel really is: modern day Midrash.  Havah is a very enlightening and entertaining novel.  Highly recommended.


The mysterious "Girl Next Door" Look (Love the Black Fingernail Polish!)


Tosca Lee as Mrs. Nebraska 1996


The Bad Catholic loves the swim suit competition!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop Here's the Book Blogger Hop question for this week: What is your favorite spooky book? The Bad Catholic Answer: The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons. Something just ain't right with that brand new designer home in suburban Atlanta. Do the neighbors just have bad luck or is it something much more sinister?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

Here's this week's Book Blogger Hop from Crazy for Books.com.  The challenge this week is to find posts by other book bloggers which I really like.  So here goes:

1.  Review of Longarm and the Horse Women of the Apocalypse at Western Fiction Review.  Why?  Just because this series of books is so cool.  I remember sneaking a peak at them behind my mother's back in the grocery store hoping to read the dirty bits.

2.  Horror Paperback Covers: The Good, The Erotic, and the Ridiculous at Too Much Horror Fiction.  Why? Once again because it's a way cool post!

3.  I love reviews of classic literature.  Here is a discussion of William Faulkner's novel Intruder in the Dust at Tom Conoby's Writing Blog.

4.  Review of Venus in Furs at Book Lust.com.  Why? Because I love reviews of old books, especially off the wall stuff like19th century erotica.  (P.S.:  While we're on the subject, here's another review of Venus in Furs for your entertainment pleasure)

Rumer Godden's FIVE FOR SORROW, TEN FOR JOY



Rumer Godden (1907 - 1998) was a prolific author who wrote over sixty books during the course of her long life.  Godden was the author of the three best novels of all time about nuns: Black Narcissus (1939), In This House of Brede (1969), and Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy (1979).


In 1979, when Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy was published, Rumer Godden was seventy two years old and had led a long and distinguished career as a best selling author. As her biographerAnne Chisolm notes,

“It was a time when novels like Rumer’s were in a critical and commercial shadow; long disregarded by the fashionable and avant garde, her books were too gentle and well-mannered for a mass readership fed by blockbusters of the Jackie Collins or Harold Robbins variety.” 

Chisolm notes that in her seventies Godden wrote eight books. Godden was still writing novels well into her eighties.  Her last book, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva, was published in 1997.

Rumer Godden

“Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy (1979) was a novel about an order of French Catholic nuns, the Dominican Sisters of Bethany, who worked with prisoners and prostitutes.  To write the story of Vivi, a child who grows up in a brothel, and the madam turned nun who tries to help her, Rumer spent six months improving her French; she then enlisted Dorothy Watson to go with her to France to visit courts, prisons and the back-streets of Paris.  Rumer was not above a little string-pulling to get what she wanted: the British Ambassador in Paris was asked to pass on a letter to the French justice minister from Harold Macmillan, who vouched for Rumer as ‘a person of the highest probity and discretion,’ who would be willing to submit her book for approval before publication.  Dorothy Watson, observing Rumer at work, was impressed with her stamina and determination.  They attended a murder trial, visited the women’s prison at Rennes and were driven round the roughest quarters of Paris in the small hours; Rumer then went to stay at the convent at Fontenailles where many of the postulants were ex-prisoners.  Two of the Sisters of Bethany were her special advisors. . . . Rumer made sure that in return for their help the Sisters of Bethany benefited financially from the book.  She also took an interest in the small, impoverished community that the order had set up in north London.  When she found out they could not afford to furnish their chapel, she undertook to do it by persuading ‘everyone who had benefited from my writing’ to help. . . . The book attracted some excellent reviews; the Financial Times called it ‘a very readable and dramatic story of manipulation, violence, double-dealing and redemption,’ while Auberon Waugh in the Evening Standard said it was ‘a first-class story, with a nice and unusual plot.’ *

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is the story of Elizabeth Fanshaw.  Elizabeth, known as Lise, is an orphan who has been reared by her spinster aunt.  Joining the British Army as a teenager during World War II, Lise is sent to France as a driver.  In Paris, Lise is seduced by Patrice, the owner of a high class brothel.  After becoming Patrice's lover, Lise is forced into a life of prostitution.  Lise becomes known as La Balafree, "the branded one'" after she is accidentally cut across the face in a fight between Patrice and a client who has fallen in love with her.  Ultimately,  Lise becomes the brothel's madame and manages the house for Patrice and his brother Emile.


Lise rescues a young girl named Vivi.  Vivi had been the victim of incest at the hands of her father and had been given refuge in an insane asylum during the German occupation of France.  Lise finds Vivi living on the streets of Paris and about to be arrested as a vagrant.  As Vivi gets older she becomes more beautiful.  Tension ensues when Patrice removes Lise as his mistress and replaces her with young Vivi.  Vivi, however, becomes bored with Patrice and seduces Luigi, a young Italian delivery boy.  Lise helps Vivi to escape the brothel and run away with Luigi.  When Patrice discovers that Vivi is gone, Lise is savagely beaten.   About a year later, Lise gets information that Patrice is about to kidnap Vivi and force her back into a life of prostitution.  Lise follows Patrice to Vivi’s doorstep where she shoots and kills him.  Lise has been mistaken, however.  It turns out that Vivi, now bored with her husband and neglectful of her baby, had herself contacted Patrice and asked him to take her back. 


Lise is sentenced to 15 years in prison for manslaughter.  During her years in prison, Lise becomes acquainted with the Sisters of Bethany who come to minister to the prisoners.  While still in prison, Lise begins preparing for religious life, and makes plans to enter the Sisters of Bethany following her release.  

Another prisoner, a young girl named Lucette, is released from prison at the same time as Lise. Although Lise tries to get rid of her, Lucette looks up to Lise as a role model  and is determined to follow Lise wherever she goes.  Lise then enters the convent and begins the long road to become a fully professed nun.  

Two real life Sisters of Bethany hold up a picture of the founders of the order, 
Mother Henri Dominque and Father Lataste, which was made by a prisoner.


Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is about the intersection of Evil and Divine Grace in the lives of these three women: Lise, Vivi and Lucette.  The title, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, is a reference to the prayers of the rosary (sorrowful mysteries, joyful mysteries, and glorious mysteries).  When Lise finds Vivi on the streets of Paris, Vivi is carrying a rosary.  Later, after Vivi has betrayed Lise at her trial for murdering Patrice, Vivi sends the rosary to Lise in prison. Heartbroken and angry,  Lise breaks the strand of beads in two and sends it back to Vivi.  When Lise becomes a nun, although she intends to take the name "Sister Mary Lise of the Cross," she finds herself saying "Soeur Marie Lise du Rosaire" or "Sister Mary Lise of the Rosary."  Guilty over her treatment of Vivi, Lise is unable to say the rosary.  Lise's relationship to the prayers of the rosary and what happens to Vivi's broken rosary is an important theme of the novel.

  Our Lady of the Rosary

As in a number of her other novels, Godden has a unique story telling technique with relation to time.  Rather than just telling the story in a linear fashion, the novel, which is set in  the present  of the 1970's, is put together as a series of flashbacks to different periods in Lise's life.  The narrative is advanced through the past and present, with more and more of Lise's life being revealed throughout the novel.



Although Godden has been accused of merely writing a rehash of In This House of Brede, I think that Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is a very different kind of book.  Whereas In This House of Brede was concerned mostly with the inner action of the spiritual life, the subject matter of this novel can be described as a lurid melodrama.

Although some will find the melodramatic elements of the story to be over the top, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, has to rank as one of the best Catholic novels of the twentieth century.  It is also a very entertaining read with sufficient twists and suspense to keep the reader enthralled.  Rumor Godden was a very talented writer, and even when dealing with this potboiler material does not disappoint.  On a scale of one to five, the Bad Catholic gives Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy five Rosaries.


______________________


*Chisolm, Anne, Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life, Greenwillow Books (1998) p. 281 - 282

Saturday, August 27, 2011

James M. Cain's DOUBLE INDEMNITY


“I stared into the darkness some more that night. I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman. The woman was a killer, out-and-out, and she had made a fool of me. She had used me for a cat’s paw so she could have another man, and she had enough on me to hang me higher than a kite. . . . I got to laughing, a hysterical cackle, there in the dark.” So James M. Cain’s character Walter Huff explains his dilemma in the crime noir classic Double Indemnity.


Following up on his run away commercial success with The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity was written as a serial for Liberty Magazine. According to The Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers, Double Indemnity “. . . was meant to be a quickie job that Cain vowed would never be reprinted as a book. While researching Postman, Cain had talked to some insurance investigators, and with another real-life crime for inspiration he wrote a story about a woman conspiring with an insurance salesman to kill her husband and collect on his policy.” Double Indemnity originally appeared as a serial in Liberty Magazine in 1936, and, despite Cain’s initial reservations, was published in hardcover with two other of Cain’s novellas in 1943.


Although Cain has been accused of merely writing a re-hash of Postman, I found Double Indemnity to be a much darker tale. The main characters of Double Indemnity, Walter Huff and Phyllis Nordlinger, are much more evil than Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, the murdering adulterers of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Whereas Postman’s Frank Chambers just kind of falls into murder, Walter Huff knows that Phyllis wants to kill her husband and is more than willing to cooperate for a cut of a $50,000 accidental death policy. Frank and Cora murder solely for love/lust. Walter and Phyllis murder for money. Whereas Frank Chambers is a drifter and a loser and Cora Papadakis is a bored house wife, Walter Huff is a successful insurance salesman with a desire to cheat the insurance company and Phyllis Nirdlinger turns out to be a serial killer.


Walter Huff met Phyllis Nirdlinger when he went to the Nirdlinger home to see oil company executive H.D. Nirdlinger about renewing his automobile insurance. Huff makes his sales pitch to Mrs. Nirdlinger who has come downstairs in her pajamas:


“Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts . . .

But all of sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair. “Do you handle accident insurance?”

Maybe that don’t mean to you what it meant to me. Well, in the first place, accident insurance is sold, not bought. You get calls for other kinds, for fire, for burglary, even for life, but never for accident. The stuff moves when agents move it, and it sounds funny to be asked about it. In the second place, when there’s dirty work going on, accident is the first thing they think of. . . . there’s many a man walking around today that’s worth more to his loved ones dead than alive, only he don’t know it yet.”



Walter and Phyllis conspire to have Phyllis’ husband take out an accidental death policy and murder him for the insurance money. Nirdlinger believes that he is signing a renewal for his automobile insurance when he is really signing an application for accidental death insurance. The $25,000 policy has a double indemnity clause for dying in a railroad accident, so Walter devises a plan to make it look like Mr. Nordlinger fell off of a train and broke his neck. When Nirdlinger has a real accident and breaks his leg, he can no longer drive to a class reunion he planned to attend and Phyllis convinces him to take the train. Walter kills Mr. Nirdlinger by breaking his neck and then, posing as Nirdlinger and wearing a cast on his foot and hobbling on crutches, Walter boards the train and jumps off the observation platform. Phyllis drives the body to the spot where Walter jumped off the train where they deposit the victim’s body. Phyllis and Walter have iron clad alibis and it appears that Nirdlinger genuinely broke his neck falling off the train.


However, Barton Keyes, the claims investigator for the insurance company (brilliantly played by Edward G. Robinson in the 1944 movie version), is convinced that Nirdlinger has been murdered. Keyes, however, is also convinced that Walter Huff is a dedicated insurance man and confides in him. Huff, of course, uses the information to avoid detection.


Walter is redeemed when he falls in love with Nirdlinger’s step daughter, Lola. Phyllis was a nurse. Lola’s mother was related to a child which Phyllis was caring for in the hospital. The child was the heir to a large sum of money and property. This child and two others died in mysterious circumstances in the hospital under the care of Phyllis. Lola’s mother then inherited the fortune. Lola tells Walter that she suspects that Phyllis murdered her mother. Shortly after her mother’s death, Phyllis married Lola’s father.


The plot is rather complex, with Lola’s boyfriend being the son of a doctor who was ruined by Phyllis who pretends to dump Lola and seduce Phyllis seeking to get evidence against her. Walter decides that he must murder Phyllis in order to protect himself but is double crossed when Phyllis shoots him in the chest and Lola and her boyfriend are wrongfully accused of the crime.


Because of his love for Lola, Walter decides to confess to his friend Keyes, the insurance investigator. There is then an elaborate plot by the insurance company executives and lawyers to minimize bad publicity by avoiding a criminal trial. Walter and Phyllis flee the country on board a ship paid for by the insurance company.


The ending of Double Indemnity is chilling as Walter and Phyllis join each other in a suicide pact:

“There’s nothing ahead of us, is there Walter?

No. Nothing. . . .

“. . . Walter, the time has come.”

“What do you mean, Phyllis?”

“For me to meet my bridegroom. The only one I ever loved. One night I’ll drop off the stern of the ship. Then, little by little I’ll feel his icy fingers creeping into my heart.”

“. . . I’ll give you away.”

“What?”

“I mean: I’ll go with you.”

“It’s all that’s left, isn’t it?”

. . . I’m writing this in the stateroom. It’s about half past nine. She’s in her stateroom getting ready. She’s made her face chalk white, with black circles under her eyes and red on her lips and cheeks. . . . She looks like what came aboard the ship to shoot dice for souls in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”


Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis and Fred MacMurray as Walter

The 1944 movie version of Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray as Walter and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, is considered to be a classic of the film noir genre. It was directed by legendary director Billy Wilder who co-wrote the screenplay along with famed “hard-boiled” detective writer Raymond Chandler. As a personal note, the first time I saw Double Indemnity, I was home sick and watching it on AMC. There was a real estate closing involving some investment property that was scheduled for that day. My wife showed up with a secretary to get me to sign a power of attorney to allow her to act for me at the closing. After just watching Fred MacMurray obtain the signature of his victim on an accidental death policy he thought was his car insurance renewal, I was just a little reluctant to sign.


The novella Double Indemnity is a classic of the Crime Noir genre and should continue to be read and enjoyed well into the future.


WHAT IS CRIME NOIR?

From the Foward “James M. Cain - Father of Noir” in James M. Cain: Hard-Boiled Mythmaker by David Madden (Scarecrow Press, 2011):

“So now we come to the term "noir". Originally this was a word used by French film critics to discuss American crime films whose subject matter was dark and whose lighting effects, courtesy of German expressionism, was darker. Many of these were cheap B movies, where a master of cinematography like John Alton could hide the lack of proper art design and set direction by “painting with light.” Among the most influential of the bigger-budget films noir was Wilder’s "Double Indemnity".

French film critics using the term film noir were referencing the "Serie noire", a line of crime novels published by Gallimard - black covered paperbacks reprinting Cain and other American writers, many of whom were his imitators. Gallimard began the "Serie noire" in the forties, and it continues to this day. . . .

In the sixties, American film critics . . . began using the term film noir, and in the subsequent decades it has been so basterdized as to be almost meaningless. Most critics agree that noir films date from around 1941 to 1955, have dark subject matter and atmospheric lighting, and are in black-and-white. Subsequent crime films of a noirish nature - like the definitive Cain patische, "Body Heat" - are usually called neo-noir.

In recent years, in American publishing the term "hard-boiled" has become tarnished due to its old-fashioned ring (it’s a World War I term, after all, pertaining to tough top sergeants), and “tough guy” is even more unpopular and antiquated. . . .

Just as American film critics co-opted the term film noir from the French, American book critics (and editors and publishers and even authors) appropriated it to describe that which mustn’t be termed "hard boiled". . . .

Vague as it is, noir as a definition or perhaps category has pushed out “hard-boiled,” a term Cain hated. So it’s time to remind everyone that James M. Cain, in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and his next several novels, defined and perfected the dark crime novel, which gave birth to the films named after the French book series of which Cain was a major part and prime influence.

Without Cain, there is - no matter how you define it - no noir.

He is its daddy.

And he was very, very strict.”



Friday, August 26, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

This week's Book Blogger Hop at Crazy for Books.com asks the non-book question "Do you have pets?"

The Bad Catholic answer: We have two cats inside and a permanent stray outside that shows up regularly to eat.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE


“They threw me off the haytruck about noon.” So begins one of the most famous crime noir novels of all time, The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Neither of the two movies, neither the 1946 Lana Turner - John Garfield version nor the 1981 Jessica Lange - Jack Nicholson version, really do this book justice, although the Lange - Nicholson movie follows the novel much more closely. The “hard boiled” style has now been parodied so much that it is hard to realize how new and fresh this writing was in 1934 when Postman was first published.


The plot of Postman is well known. Frank Chambers is a no good drifter who lands at the Twin Oaks Tavern which, as Frank describes it, “ . . . was nothing but a roadside sandwich joint, like a million others in California. There was a lunchroom part, and over that the house part, where they lived, and off to one side a filling station, and out back a half dozen shacks that they called an auto court.”


The Twin Oaks Tavern is owned by a middle aged Greek immigrant named Nick Papadakis and his pretty young wife Cora. Cora won a beauty contest in Iowa and came to Hollywood trying to break into the movie business. Although Cora’s looks may have been enough to make her a silent movie star, the recent advent of talking pictures has doomed any chance Cora has of being a movie star.

“They gave me a test. It was all right in the face. But they talk, now. The pictures, I mean. And when I began to talk, up there on the screen, they knew me for what I was, and so did I. A cheap Des Moines trollop that had as much chance in pictures as a monkey has. A monkey, anyway, can make you laugh. All I did was make you sick.”



After washing out in the movies, Cora is forced to wait tables in seedy dives. Cora has married “the Greek” for financial reasons. Although the Greek is a likeable man who works hard and treats Cora well, Cora does not love him and is not sexually excited by him. When the Greek offers Frank the drifter a job working in the gas station, Frank takes it with the idea of trying to seduce Cora. Being bored in her marriage, Cora is easily seduced. There is just a hint of Sado-Masochism in the first sexual encounter between Cora and Frank:


“I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers . . . “Bite me! Bite me!”

I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.”



This was very racy stuff in 1934. Lines like this and “She looked like the great-grandmother of every whore in the world,” caused this book to be considered scandalous in its time and caused it to be one of those books which was “banned in Boston.”


In any event, Cora and Frank conspire to murder the Greek. Actually it’s more Cora than Frank. Even though Frank is a loser and an ex-con, he is a likeable character. After staying with Frank’s first person narration for the whole novel, the reader comes to feel that Frank is an old friend. Frank is reluctant to kill Nick when Cora first suggests it:

“. . . I’ve made one mistake. And I’ve got to be a hell cat, just once, to fix it. But I’m not really a hell cat, Frank.”

“They hang you for that.”

“Not if you do it right. You’re smart, Frank. I never fooled you for a minute. You’ll think of a way. Plenty of them have. Don’t worry. I’m not the first woman that had to turn hell cat to get out of a mess.”

“He never did anything to me. He’s all right.”

“The hell he’s all right. He stinks, I tell you. He’s greasy and he stinks. And do you think I’m going to let you wear a smock, with Service Auto Parks printed on the back, Thank-U Call Again, while he has four suits and a dozen silk shirts? Isn’t that business half mine? Don’t I cook? Don’t I cook good? Don’t you do your part?”

“You talk like it was all right.”

“Who’s going to know if it’s all right or not, but you and me?”

“You and me.”


Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange as Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis

Cora is really the ruthless one with the least moral scruples. Even though he becomes a cold blooded killer, Frank does seem to have a certain morality about him. Cora is eager to kill the Greek but Frank is a reluctant killer. “He never did anything to me. He’s all right.” But Frank’s lust for sexy Cora outweighs Frank’s scruples.

Jessica Lange as Cora and John Colicos as "the Greek"

This novel is so well known, I feel no need to go through the entire plot in detail. Having been a lawyer in criminal courts for over twenty years, I felt that the courtroom and legal scenes in The Postman Always Rings Twice are very realistic. I noticed that in the 1981 Jack Nicholson movie, the name of the conniving criminal defense lawyer, Katz, had been changed to something less Jewish sounding. I wonder if it was felt that Cain was making an anti-semitic swipe against “Jewish lawyers,” since Katz is interested only in making a big splash and winning his case and has no interest in justice whatsoever.


Since author James M. Cain was writing a morality tale, he couldn't allow the murderers to live happily ever after. Just when it looks like Frank and Cora are really going to settle down and have babies disaster strikes. After having gotten away with murdering the Greek, Frank is wrongfully convicted of murdering pregnant Cora after she dies in a tragic accident while Frank was trying to rush her to the hospital. The novel ends with Frank on death row about to be executed for the murder he didn’t commit.


According to The Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers “Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain are the father, son, and holy ghost of American hard-boiled literature.” Prior to authoring Postman, Cain was a successful journalist and a not so successful playwright and screenwriter.

James M. Cain

Reportedly, the inspiration for Postman was the Ruth Snyder - Judd Grey case where an adulterous couple conspired and murdered the woman’s husband. There is a famous picture covertly snapped by a reporter of Ruth Snyder dying in New York’s electric chair.

The infamous photograph of the execution of Ruth Snyder

The title has always caused some confusion since there is no postman in the story. Cain had originally named the story “Bar-B-Que” but the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, wanted another title. The “Postman” who “always rings twice,” is God or fate. Frank and Cora got away with murder the first time, but then the postman came back and delivered punishment.

Lana Turner and John Garfield as Cora Papadakis and Frank Chambers

Although Cain continued to write novels up until his death in 1977, he never recaptured the run away success of The Postman Always Rings Twice. His next novel, Double Indemnity (1943), is basically a re-hash of the same story, involving this time an insurance salesman and the wife of a client.


The Postman Always Rings Twice is short, only 35,000 words. Apparently, Knopf had to print it in larger than normal type to make it look like it was longer. As one article which I read on the internet said, “It will take you longer to watch either movie version than to read the book.” Even after all these years, The Postman Always Rings Twice is still able to work its magic on readers. It is still a powerful, gripping story and the sparse, muscular Hemingway-esque “hard-boiled” style can still grab you. The Postman Always Rings Twice well deserves its reputation as a classic.