32 pages 1 hour read

James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1934

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Summary and Study Guide


The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain, published in 1934, tells the story of a drifter named Frank Chambers. In the first chapter, Frank arrives at a diner called the Twin Oaks Tavern near Glendale, California. There, he meets Nick “the Greek” Papadakis, the diner’s proprietor, and Nick’s wife, Cora. After Frank agrees to work in the diner, Cora tells Frank that she hates Nick. Frank soon makes a pass at Cora, and the two begin an affair.

After declaring their love for each other, Frank and Cora decide that the only way for them to be together is to kill Nick. Following their plan to murder Nick, Cora knocks Nick unconscious at the diner, but a cop shows up and the diner’s lights go out before she can drown him as planned. Nick is rushed to the hospital with Cora and Frank, and he survives. The cop follows Frank back to the diner, but he is satisfied that there was no attempted murder after seeing an electrocuted cat that had stepped on the diner’s fuse box.

Shaken by what happened, Frank and Cora agree not to try to kill Nick again, and they act like a couple for a week while Nick is in the hospital. They agree to run away together before he is released from the hospital, but Cora changes her mind and heads back to the diner, leaving Frank on his own. Frank goes to San Bernardino where he plays pool for money. Once he thinks he has won enough money to start a new life with Cora, he goes back to Glendale. There, he loses all of the money he earned in another pool game. Nick spots Frank and insists that he resume working at the diner. Frank reluctantly agrees. At first, Cora ignores Frank, but she eventually tells him that Nick wants to have a baby.

Later, Frank, Cora, and Nick go on a day trip together. After getting himself and Nick drunk, Frank tells Cora to drive the car onto a bad stretch of highway on the pretext of visiting Malibu Beach. There, Frank clubs Nick to death with a wrench, pushes the car over the side of a cliff, roughs up Cora, has sex with Cora, and then climbs into the broken car to be “discovered” once Cora flags down help. Frank is taken to a hospital in an ambulance that also drops off Nick’s body at a morgue—confirming for Frank that Nick is really dead. Cora identifies Nick’s body at the subsequent inquest. During his testimony at the inquest, Frank lies about who drove the car on the day of the incident, and he claims that he was sober that day.

Kyle Sackett, the district attorney, visits Frank at the hospital. Sackett doesn’t fall for Frank’s lies. He knows enough about Frank’s background and history to intimidate Frank into signing a complaint against Cora that states she is responsible for the accident. Afterwards, a cop visits Frank and offers him the services of a lawyer named Katz. During the subsequent trial, Katz pleads guilty for Cora, and she tells the truth in a signed statement afterwards.

Frank is taken to Katz’s office where he finds out that Cora has been set free. Katz found a loophole in Nick’s insurance policy to exploit, withdrew Cora’s guilty plea, and got a judge to suspend her sentence for six months. Frank and Cora deposit the money from Nick’s insurance policy before going to his funeral. When they return to the diner, Cora accuses Frank of betraying her. In response, Frank gets Cora drunk and has sex with her. For six months after the funeral, Frank and Cora routinely fight, get drunk, and make up.

When Cora’s mother falls ill, Cora leaves the diner to visit her. While Cora is gone, Frank takes a trip with a woman named Madge Allen whom he meets at the diner. Madge suggests that they go to Nicaragua to hunt pumas, but Frank decides to return to Cora because he is afraid that she will turn on him. After Cora returns, Katz’s former associate, Kennedy, shows up at the diner and tries to blackmail Frank and Cora with Cora’s confession. Frank and Cora turn the tables on Kennedy, and they burn the confession along with Kennedy’s photos of it.

While Frank guards Kennedy, Cora finds out about Madge. Enraged, she threatens to tell the police the truth, but then she reveals that she is pregnant with Frank’s baby. Frank and Cora get married and then take a trip to the beach, during which Cora feels sick. While rushing Cora to the hospital, Frank gets into a car accident and kills Cora. He is convicted of murder. Frank reveals that he has been writing the novel’s narrative in prison, and he asks the reader to pray for him as he is taken away for execution.

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