When I was in my teens I read a lot. This was partly because I had always read a lot, and partly because I had a lot of time on my hands, being neither athletically inclined nor socially in demand. For me, there were two kinds of books: “good” books, the kind you got from the library, the kind you were happy to let your parents know you were reading – Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, the Brontes, Joseph Heller, J. D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, Muriel Spark, John Fowles, Carson McCullers . . . Sorry. It’s a long list. But you get the idea.
Then there were the – well, the not-so-good books. The kind you found snooping around in night-table drawers when you were babysitting – yes, I was that kind of babysitter. Valley of the Dolls was one of those, as was Mandingo, Kyle Onstott’s sensationalist story of slavery in the American South. A friend’s older brother introduced me to Grove Press, which is how I got my hands on the anonymous Victorian erotica The Way of A Man with a Maid. God’s Little Acre was in the bottom drawer of my Dad’s filing cabinet (my God, I was a snoopy kid!) along with his issues of For Men Only and Stag. I think The Story of O was handed around school – the dirty parts being helpfully underlined in yellow highlighter to save you having to plough through the boring bits; Lady Chatterly’s Lover was “read” the same way. And of course Lolita, which, besides being about sex, was considered literature and could be found in the library.
In case you’re thinking I was obsessed with sex – in which case I would ask you to name a teenager who isn’t – there was a sub-category of not-so-good books that were perfectly respectable, just not on any high school curriculum. I’m talking about pulp fiction. And I don’t mean the movie. The term goes back to the popular fiction magazines published in the first half of the 20th Century. Unlike the glossy, more expensive magazines, these were printed on cheap wood pulp paper, and were meant to be read and thrown away. As the magazines declined in popularity, mass-market paperbacks took their place. Available in every drugstore, bus depot and railway station in the country, they were, as the US Library of Congress puts it, “cheap, portable, disposable, and often sensational”.
Most of the writers of this “hardboiled” fiction were men, and no one was harder boiled than James M. Cain. A former newspaperman who headed West during the Depression to write for the movies, Cain wrote some 20-odd novels, several of which were made into films. He claimed to make no special effort to be particularly tough, or grim, but his fiction is some of the darkest you’re ever likely to come across. The reason, I think, is because he wrote people as they are, not as they should be.
His first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), contains two protagonists with almost no redeeming qualities. I mean none. Frank Chambers, the narrator, is a drifter who turns up one morning at a roadside diner somewhere outside of Los Angeles. The owner of the place, Nick Papadakis, convinces him to stay on and help out in the garage. Frank is reluctant at first but once he catches sight of Cora, Nick’s attractive young wife, he changes his mind.
Frank and Cora begin an affair, and Cora confides to Frank that she’s sick of her husband, sick of being married to a man who’s “greasy and makes you sick at the stomach when he touches you”. When Frank suggests they run away together, Cora says she couldn’t cope with life on the road. Besides, she wants to hang onto the diner. What she wants is to get rid of Nick altogether.
“You’re smart, Frank,” she says. “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.”
They say there’s no such thing as a perfect crime; certainly, Frank and Cora’s plot to murder her husband has a million holes in it. Cora, they decide, will bash Nick over the head with a homemade blackjack while he’s in the bath, then push his head under the water and keep it there till he drowns. Once she’s sure he’s dead, she’ll lock the bathroom door and leave via the window and a stepladder Frank has set up in the yard. It’ll look like he slipped and fell in the bath, poor guy.
A sudden power outage and the appearance of a policeman causes the plan to go awry – Cora does manage to knock Nick unconscious, but isn’t able to drown him. They call an ambulance and Nick wakes up a few days later in hospital, with no memory of what took place. The policeman has his suspicions but no substantial proof that any crime took place – or was attempted.
They’ve dodged a bullet. At this point anyone with half a brain would call it a day. They tried, they failed – let’s move on. Unfortunately, in this case that half a brain is being shared by two hapless losers – sorry, but there’s really no other word for it. Cora and Frank decide to try again, this time by faking an automobile accident. They get Nick drunk, hit him on the head, and crash the car. He dies this time, and Frank and Cora are injured but survive. All might be well except for a local prosecutor who doesn’t believe their story. He manages to get them to turn on each other – Frank signs a complaint against Cora, and Cora is angry enough to make a full confession to her lawyer. Eventually, by negotiating with the companies who hold insurance policies on Nick’s life, Cora’s lawyer gets her a pardon and the two of them are free to marry and start a new life together.
You know, though, that these two are not going to have a fairy-tale happy-ever-after ending. Cora knows it for sure – she reminds Frank that as soon as things got rough, they turned on each other. And things will never be the same.
“We were up so high, Frank. We had it all . . . We’re just two punks, Frank . . . We had all that love, and we just cracked up under it. It’s a big airplane engine, that takes you through the sky, right up to the top of the mountain. But when you put it in a Ford, it just shakes it to pieces. That’s what we are, Frank, a couple of Fords. God is up there laughing at us.”
The ending is as bleak as you might expect. Justice is served, but with a twist. The Postman Always Rings Twice is a good, smart read. And, as Cain himself might have said, happy endings are overrated.