98. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

(So let's just be clear about something: I try to go into the Top 100 books as "blind" as possible. I think that makes it more fun, plus it's a lot truer to the premise of the blog if I don't go around reading a bunch of literary criticism before I write my reviews. Anyway, when I picked up The Postman Always Rings Twice, the title was kind of familiar but I didn't know why. I only recently discovered that the reason it was familiar was because of the pretty famous film adaptation. I haven't seen the movie, though, so I can't tell you how closely it follows the book or anything. What I'm trying to say is that this review is purely my reaction to the book and has nothing to do with the movie. -M.R.)

Year Published: 1934
Pages: 188
First Sentence: They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

James M. Cain broke my heart, or at least punched me in the gut. I hope I'm not giving too much away by saying that.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is the story of Frank Chambers. He's basically a twenty-something vagrant, getting in fights and incarcerations in various places in the middle of the 1930s. I assume he's handsome (I imagine all youngish men of the 30s being handsome, but I'm not sure why), but the book doesn't have anything to say on that topic, possibly because Chambers is the narrator. He ends up in California at Twin Oaks Tavern, a "roadside sandwich joint" owned by Nick Papadakis, who is usually just referred to as "the Greek."

The Greek's wife is Cora, who is probably around the same age as Chambers, not exactly a looker but kind of a devil in bed, which it doesn't take long for Chambers to find out. As soon as he sees Cora, he agrees to stay and work for the Greek (this was back in the good old days when every gas station had a mechanic), and Chambers and Cora fall into bed together pretty much immediately. If this is starting to sound like a romance novel, don't worry, it's about a thousand times better.

Cora only married the Greek to get out of the hash house where she ended up working after arriving in LA. NB: I don't really know what a hash house is. This, I guess. Anyway, without any real deliberation, Chambers and Cora hatch a plot to kill the Greek, I guess so that they can be together, and the rest of the book springs from that. Keep in mind that the stakes are high, what with the death penalty and everything.

The thing is that the stakes don't seem very high at first. The way Chambers relates it, killing the Greek is just a matter of course, the easiest thing in the world. Instead of getting bogged down in all kinds of ethical or philosophical speculation, the narrative is really sparse, and the tension is ratcheted up in unexpected places. Because of that, the ending hits very hard. I loved everything about the telling, and of course it helps that the story is very strong. Also I have to say that I adore 30s vernacular, or whatever it is. If I could bring back the term "flim-flammed," I can guarantee you I would.

Basically what I'm trying to say is that even if you don't agree with me on the awesomeness of this book, it's very short and definitely worth your time.

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All of a sudden, I found out I was crying too.
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He walked around the room a few times, falling for himself every time he passed a little mirror that was in the corner, and then he went on.
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