Why Did The Postman Ring Twice, and Why It’s Best to Miss Appointments in Samarra: James M. Cain and John O’Hara’s Rendezvous With Fate

Why Did The Postman Ring Twice, and Why It’s Best to Miss Appointments in Samarra: James M. Cain and John O’Hara’s Rendezvous With Fate

“Tragedy is the force of circumstances driving the protagonist to the commission of a dreadful act.” This was the deterministic notion of James M. Cain’s father, an eminent educator and president of Washington College, Maryland. And it was from this classical viewpoint that his son, the presiding genius of the “Hard-Boiled School of Noir Thriller Writers,” regarded the destinies of his cast of cynical loners, low-life drifters, and wanton, adulterous women consumed by lust and avarice.

Therefore, if this authorial attitude was the central tenet for “tough guy” writers of the Hard-Boiled School, then it can be no accident that the preeminent “Poets of the Tabloid Murder” (as Edmund Wilson referred to them), James M. Cain and John O’Hara, were both phenomenal bestsellers in the same vintage year, 1934, with The Postman Always Rings Twice and Appointment in Samarra still in print in the current decade.

Templates of fatalistic fables

Certainly, an awareness of predestination (both writers shared the heritage of Irish Catholicism) casts long shadows over their gritty novels, yet there is, confessedly, another more ancient source for their mutual fatalism, the definite pattern that can be discerned in a number of Arabian Nightsfables (8th century), the template hijacked not only by the hard-boiled Cain and O’Hara but by an Argentine fabulist whose febrile cranium one suspects was eggshell thin—Jorge Luis Borges.

Cain, forensically, analyzed his own stark narrative schema of sexuality and violence as the predicament of two people in love who resolve impediments to their love affair by murder. Characteristically, the Scheherazadian theme of the inescapability of fate finds its recognizable expression in The Postman Always Rings Twice, even though—in a Borgesian paradox that outrivals the master—nowhere in the novel does a postman appear, nor is one even alluded to.

The Postman Always Rings Twice. Why?

According to Cain, the explanation for the title arose from a discussion with The Postman’s dedicatee and Cain’s acknowledged mentor, the celebrated screenwriter and script doctor Vincent Lawrence. Lawrence had spoken of his anxiety when waiting for the postman to bring news on a submitted manuscript, specifically noting that he would know when the postman had finally arrived because he always rang twice. Cain then seized upon the phrase as a title for his novel.

In their understanding of the phrase’s significance, the “postman” represents Fate, and the “delivery” represents the protagonist’s own death as just retribution for murdering his lover’s husband. The first “ring” symbolizes the moment the killer beats the rap for that crime. However, the postman rings again, and this time the ring is heard and, with inexorability of Fate, the killer is wrongly convicted of a murder he never committed and sentenced to die.

Kismet-driven Appointment in Samarra

From the pen of one of the West’s most hard-bitten pulp fictionists is an admission of conformity to the classical Scheherazadian storytelling of the East. And John O’Hara, with greater deliberation, does not depart from this kismet-driven narrative formula in his debut novel. Appointment in Samarra begins with this epigraph:

A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant’s horse, the servant flees as fast as the horse can gallop to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, “That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Now. Should you pursue the origin of this fable, you will run into a veritable fog of daunting obfuscation. Suffice to say, some scholars believe, erroneously, that the origin of novelist Somerset Maugham’s celebrated parable (quoted in his theatrical drama, Sheppey, 1933) is When Death Came to Baghdad, a 9th-century Arabian Sufi story in the sage Fozayl ibn Ziyad’s so-called Hikayat-I-Naqshiyya(Stories-with-a-Design).

Let me record here: no such collection of stories is known to exist, nor does the adjective naqshiyya (from naqsh, “picture, drawing”) seem a likely contemporaneous construction. Nor is it possible for the sage to have recorded the fable since we have no surviving writings from this very early Sufi, who probably died about 803. Another problem is that this title is clearly in New Persian (i.e., in the Arabic script), which was not yet in literary use at the time of Fozayl ibn Ziyad, otherwise known as Fudail ibn Ayad or Al-Fudhayl bin Iyyadh.

Yes. This is a perfect fable, elegantly symmetrical, with a dramatic punch unequalled by most Western fictionists. Yet its origin is cloaked in mystery, a condition of obscurity that would have profoundly satisfied Borges who has fashioned his own parables from similar tales found in The Arabian Nights, notably The Circular Ruins. The epigraph of this tale is taken from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, the master of artless, unpretentious prose who, unexpectedly, is venerated by Cain as his literary exemplar. “Whenever I feel an impulse to be important, I remind myself of Alice.”

As it is, the Baghdad fable has been cited often as a parable of the powerlessness of mortals to escape their brute fate and, as to similar metaphysical resonances derived from Eastern mysticism discernible in 20th-century popular American fiction, I believe The Postman Always Rings Twice can be spoken of in the same breath as Appointment in Samarra.

The echoes of the Samarran second appointment with Death cannot be ignored, since in both cases the protagonist misses the first “deathly appointment” by escaping retribution. However, Messenger Death has a second appointment, and this time Death’s Chosen are fated to die.

A Fate worse than death

“You were a fool not to have been born a Frenchman,” an admiring critic wrote to Cain, meaning that his honed prose, if French, would have placed him within the highest pantheon of French literature. Cain would have allowed himself a wry smile had he learned that his taut, first-person, demotic narratives found an admirer in Albert Camus, who admitted that, stylistically, he owed much to Cain’s blunt simplicity of technique when writing The Stranger (1942), which was published under the imprimatur of the occupying Nazi forces. That wry smile would have widened, perhaps, when he learned Camus had won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature, especially had he known that Simenon, France’s undoubted master of the romans dur or “tough” thrillers, exploded in fury when Camus claimed the Nobel laureateship Simenon had confidently predicted his to be had. At least Cain, the practicing fatalist and America’s undisputed virtuoso of this craggy literary form, was spared the indignity of that particular fate worse than death.


Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction that explores the dark side of motivation to ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Her latest collection, charting the adventures of disturbed minds, is A Bad Case (Salt 2015):


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