The Postman Always Rings Twice (novel)

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

The Postman Always Rings Twice
Cover of the first edition
AuthorJames M. Cain
CountryUnited States
GenreCrime novel, psychological thriller, roman noir
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover)

The novel was successful and notorious upon publication. It is regarded as one of the more important crime novels of the 20th century. The novel's mix of sexuality and violence was startling in its time and caused it to be banned in Boston.[1]

It is included in Modern Library's list of 100 best novels,[2] and it was published as an Armed Services Edition during WWII.

The novel has been adapted as a motion picture eight times (see Adaptations). The 1946 version is probably the best known and is regarded as an important film noir.


The story is narrated in the first person by Frank Chambers, a young drifter who stops at a rural California diner for a meal and ends up working there. The diner is operated by a beautiful young woman, Cora, and her much older husband, Nick Papadakis, sometimes called "the Greek".

Frank and Cora feel an immediate attraction to each other and begin a passionate affair with sadomasochistic qualities (when they first embrace, Cora commands Frank to bite her lip, and Frank does so hard enough to draw blood).

Cora is tired of her situation, married to a man she does not love and working at a diner that she wants to own and improve. Frank and Cora scheme to murder the Greek in order to start a new life together without Cora losing the diner.

They plan on striking Nick's head and making it seem he fell and drowned in the bathtub. Cora fells Nick with a solid blow, but a sudden power outage and the appearance of a policeman make the scheme fail. Nick recovers and because of retrograde amnesia does not suspect that he narrowly avoided being killed.

Determined to kill Nick, Frank and Cora fake a car accident. They ply Nick with wine, strike him on the head, and crash the car. Frank and Cora are injured. The local prosecutor suspects what has actually occurred but does not have enough evidence to prove it. As a tactic intended to get Cora and Frank to turn on each other, he charges only Cora with the crime of Nick's murder, coercing Frank to sign a complaint against her.

Cora, furious and indignant, insists on offering a full confession detailing both their roles. Her lawyer tricks her into dictating that confession to a member of his own staff. Cora, believing her confession made, returns to prison. Though Cora would be sure to learn of the trickery, a few valuable hours are gained. The lawyer uses the time to manipulate those financially interested in the trial to have their private detective recant his testimony, which was the final remaining weapon in the prosecution's arsenal. The state is forced to grant Cora a plea agreement under which she is given a suspended sentence and no jail time.

Frank and Cora patch things up and plan a happy future and a family. Then Cora is killed in a car crash while Frank is driving. The book ends with Frank, from death row, summarizing the events that followed, explaining that he was wrongly convicted of having murdered Cora. The text, he hopes, will be published after his execution.

Explanation of title

The title is a red herring in that no postman appears or is even alluded to. The meaning of the title has therefore often been the subject of speculation. William Marling, for instance, suggested that Cain may have taken the title from the sensational 1927 case of Ruth Snyder, who, like Cora in Postman, had conspired with her lover to murder her husband. Cain used the Snyder case as an inspiration for his 1943 novel Double Indemnity;[3] Marling believed it was also a model for the plot and the title of Postman. In the real-life case, Snyder said she had prevented her husband from discovering the changes she had made to his life insurance policy by telling the postman to deliver the policy's payment notices only to her and instructing him to ring the doorbell twice as a signal indicating he had such a delivery for her.[4]

The historian Judith Flanders, however, has interpreted the title as a reference to postal customs in the Victorian era. When mail (post) was delivered, the postman knocked once to let the household know it was there: no reply was needed. When there was a telegram, however, which had to be handed over personally, he knocked twice so that the household would know to answer the door. Telegrams were expensive and usually the bringers of bad news: so a postman knocking (later, ringing) twice signaled trouble was on the way.[5]

In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title of The Postman Always Rings Twice came from a discussion he had with the screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. According to Cain, Lawrence spoke of the anxiety he felt when waiting for the postman to bring him news on a submitted manuscript, noting that he would know when the postman had finally arrived because he always rang twice. In his biography of Cain, Roy Hoopes recounted the conversation between Cain and Lawrence, noting that Lawrence did not say merely that the postman always rang twice but also that he was sometimes so anxious waiting for the postman that he would go into his backyard to avoid hearing his ring. The tactic inevitably failed, Lawrence continued, because if the postman's first ring was not noticed, his second one, even from the backyard, would be.[6]

As a result of the conversation, Cain decided upon that phrase as a title for his novel. Upon discussing it further, the two men agreed such a phrase was metaphorically suited to Frank's situation at the end of the novel. With the "postman" being God or fate, the "delivery" meant for Frank was his own death as just retribution for murdering Nick. Frank had missed the first "ring" when he initially got away with that killing. However, the postman rang again and this time the ring was heard; Frank is wrongly convicted of having murdered Cora and then sentenced to die.[note 1] The theme of an inescapable fate is further underscored by the Greek's escape from death in the lovers' first murder attempt, only to be done in by their second one.


The Postman Always Rings Twice has been adapted many times, as a film (seven times), as an opera, as a radio drama, and as a play (twice).


  1. This is the explanation offered in the 1946 film adaptation of the novel.


  1. Hicks, Jack; Houston, James D.; Hong Kingston, Maxine; Young, Al (2000). The Literature of California: Native American beginnings to 1945. University of California Press. p. 453. ISBN 978-0520215245.
  2. "100 Best Novels".
  3. MacKellar, Landis (2006). The "Double Indemnity" Murder: Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray & New York's Crime of the Century. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0-8156-0824-1
  4. Marling, William. Hard-Boiled Fiction. Case Western Reserve University. Updated 2 August 2001.
  5. Flanders, Judith (2003). The Victorian House: Daily Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. London: HarperCollins. p. 106. ISBN 0-00-713188-7.
  6. Hoopes, Roy (1982). Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 0-8093-1361-8.
  7. Master Theatre Production Profile
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