Two From James M. Cain (Book Review)

I haven’t had very good luck with the older books I’ve read lately. I’ve read a variety, from 1850’s David Copperfield to 1943’s The Little Prince, and been consistently unimpressed. I finally enjoyed some, though: James M. Cain’s formative noir novels.

I read The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, which even combined are shorter than most modern young adult stories. Both had many of the recognizable characteristics of the genre, though they were also suspiciously similar: In each, the narrator begins seeing a married woman and decides to help her kill her husband. Insurance money is involved, and things don’t end well for everyone. (In the noir genre, I don’t consider that a spoiler.)

I prefer The Postman Always Rings Twice. Double Indemnity is still fun, especially since it only takes a couple hours, and the details of its crime are much more clever. However, I never quite believed in Double Indemity’s characters or their motivations, and a week later most of the plot is already muddled in my memory. Postman, on the other hand, has great characters and remains firmly in my mind even though I read it several days earlier than the other book.

Postman is the story of Frank Chambers, a restless drifter who starts working at a diner after he meets Cora, the owner’s wife. Their passion is believable enough to explain the way they act throughout the story, and their personalities create as much tension as the murder plot does: Frank can’t stay tied to any place long, while Cora is dedicated to making something of herself, but they can’t bear to break apart from each other.

One reason this works for me when other books from past generations is that the characters remain entirely believable. Sure, they’re obviously products of their society, and they’re racist, sexist, and just plain anachronistic by today’s standards. Still, they are perfectly believable. The voice of the book is Frank’s, not the author’s, and any perspectives that seem skewed are realistic when coming from a 1930’s anti-hero. Cain’s own perspectives, right or wrong, would be easier to dismiss 80 years later. (Notably, those racist and sexist elements are gone from Double Indemnity, supporting the idea that they’re products of the characters rather than the author.)

The part that ages less well is the conclusion. One story relies on an unlikely, ironic event in the final act, while the other features a confusing infodump about what had really been happening the whole time. The tragic ending may still be a staple of noir, but now it usually comes from the author’s choice. With the way Cain’s books shoehorn the twists in, it’s obvious that he didn’t have a choice. The stories are designed to give the readers a vicarious thrill, but to reassure them in the end that morality will win out.

Despite that, these are both well worth the time to read. Cain’s love of the sordid may be credited with spawning a genre, but his understanding of human nature is the reason that these got any attention in the first place. Almost a century later, that still feels fresh.

The Postman Always Rings Twice: B+

Double Indemnity: B-

  1. July 21st, 2012

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