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Literature / The Postman Always Rings Twice

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

Frank Chambers, a young drifter, finds himself in a dusty diner in rural California in search of a meal. At the diner, he finds a job and a seductive married woman named Cora. Their attraction is instantaneous, and so starts their passionate affair. Cora's tired of living her life this way, married to an old Greek man named Nick whom she doesn't truly love. She wants to start over but keep the diner. Frank and she come up with the perfect solution and the perfect crime— to murder Nick. After an unsuccessful first try, they succeed. Too perfect a crime to have really succeeded, lawyers are onto them. Will they be caught, and how will they pay for their actions?

It was controversial in its day for the violence and the sadomasochistic sexual relations between Cora and Frank. It is considered one of the best novels of modern literature.

Its most famous adaptation was the 1946 film noir, which was remade in 1981 (although Warner Bros. did not initially make either English-language version, they own both of them today, acquiring the 1981 version in its 1989 purchase of Lorimar-Telepictures, and the 1946 version when Time Warner acquired Turner Broadcasting System, the owners of the pre-1986 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer library, in 1996). There was also a 1939 French adaptation, The Last Turning, and a 1943 Italian adaptation, Ossessione.note 

Tropes used by the novel:

  • Amoral Attorney: Katz, who manages to get the protagonists acquitted - though he knows that they're guilty - just to win a bet with the prosecutor.
  • Auto Erotica: Early in the novel, Cora and Frank have sex in a car.
  • Betty and Veronica: A version that became popularized in Film Noir.
  • Blackmail: Kennedy, who works for Katz, attempts this with Frank and Cora. He is not successful.
  • The Drifter: Frank. We're first introduced to him bumming a ride in the back of someone's truck without their knowing, and he apparently has lived in (and been arrested in) multiple states at just 24 years old.
  • Death by Irony: Cora is killed in a car accident, the same way that they managed to kill Nick. Frank got away with a crime he did commit - killing Nick - but he's sentenced to death for one he did not, as Cora's death really was an accident.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Cora
  • Downer Ending: Just when Cora and Frank repaired their relationship and she became pregnant, Cora is killed in a car accident. Frank is accused of murdering her, and sentenced to death.
  • Easy Amnesia: After the attempt to hit Nick's head and make it look like he drowned in the bathtub, Nick gets retrograde amnesia from the nonfatal blow Frank managed to get.
  • Femme Fatale: Cora is a perfect example.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Comes up when Frank and Katz are discussing Kennedy:
    "He used to be a dick, but he's not a dick anymore."note 
  • Insurance Fraud: Used as a plot point. Nick changed his life insurance policy a day before he was murdered.
  • Karma Houdini: Played with, then averted for both Cora and Frank.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Cora and Frank try to kill Nick like this twice; it works for the second time. When Cora dies in a genuine car accident, Frank is accused of murdering her like this.
  • The Perfect Crime: After the first attempt, Frank deliberately wants to avoid the "perfect murder"; perfect things are suspicious.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Nick and Cora.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Of the Snyder-Gray murder.
  • Word Salad Title: The postman never shows up and is not even alluded to. There's lots of speculation as to where the name comes from, but James M. Cain admits it was something of a Non Sequitur. The Other Wiki has several possible interpretations.