Top positive review
Detective fiction where the detective sees nothing
on 3 June 2017
James M. Cain wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934, during the golden age of crime fiction, when the detective heroes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were busy solving crimes. The Postman Always Rings Twice is also crime fiction but with a significant innovation. There is wrongdoing, there are clues, and there is interpretation, but the central character is not an all-seeing detective. Instead, we see things from the point of view of Frank Chambers, a young, rootless American who arrives at a down-at-heel Californian diner one day, and becomes ensnared in a situation which leads to murder. Through Frank’s eyes, we see clever legal people interpreting events to suit themselves, to meet the needs of their petty professional rivalries and personal greed. There is no sense that these are clear-sighted seekers of truth. Through Frank, we see a world where everyone is trying to create their own story, and where life itself enjoys writing its own ambivalent twists, sending along cats or other interruptions to disrupt best-laid plans.
The fact that Frank is not a typically articulate legal expert adds another dimension to the story. Beautiful writing is always an achievement. To write beautifully through the words of an ordinary man who feels his words “ought to be fixed up a little, for punctuation and all that,” is even more impressive. It’s another aspect of this accessible yet intricate masterpiece, in which James M. Cain artfully explores falsehood and fate through the words of an ordinary man trying to tell his unvarnished truth.