- The Postman and the Mex: From hard-boiled to huevos rancheros in detective fiction
Or, and this he didn’t like to admit even to himself, perhaps he had become a private investigator because in his daydreams he saw himself as a hero.—Rudolfo Anaya, Zia Summer
Girl meets boy. Girl and boy murder girl’s husband. Girl and boy destroy each other.
If James M. Cain’s Postman Always Rings Twice did not create this essential formula, it certainly planted it in the collective consciousness of hundreds of writers who have followed him down the mean streets of crime fiction. This classic noir novel—indeed, some call it a classic American novel—was published in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression and turbulent social unrest. Its bleak, fatalistic point of view and laconic style reflected the tragic world of the main characters and a prevalent cynicism about the American dream. Cain’s use of sex as the canvas for a violent picture of twisted morals and deadly greed was enough to have the book banned in Boston. No surprise, then, that it became an instant hit and established the reputation of Cain, who went on to write other intriguing novels, such as Mildred Pierce (1941) and Double Indemnity (1943).
At its heart, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a novela negra, a crime novel, with criminals as the main characters and no real heroes in sight. But it has come to stand for much more. Albert Camus acknowledged it as the inspiration for his own book The Stranger (1942). At least two major movies and one Broadway play have been based on the book, and almost seventy years after its first publication it is still in print. The Library of America included Postman in its two-volume Crime Novels anthology, published in 1997.
Set in southern California, the story races to its climax, never pausing for literary niceties or random observations other than those critical to our understanding of the characters and their motivations. Thus the fact that Mexicans are even mentioned in Postman is especially telling about the times, the characters, the author, and, of course, the country. The first private conversation of the doomed lovers, Frank and Cora, begins with a bold statement from Cora:
“You think I’m Mex.”
“Nothing like it.” [End Page 160]
“Yes, you do. You’re not the first one. Well, get this. I’m just as white as you are, see? I may have dark hair and look a little that way, but I’m just as white as you are. You want to get along good around here, you won’t forget that.”
“Why, you don’t look Mex.”
“I’m telling you. I’m just as white as you are.”
“No, you don’t look even a little bit Mex. Those Mexican women, they all got big hips and bum legs and breasts up under their chin and yellow skin and hair that looks like it had bacon fat on it. You don’t look like that. You’re small, and got nice white skin, and your hair is soft and curly, even if it is black. Only thing you’ve got that’s Mex is your teeth. They all got white teeth, you’ve got to hand that to them.”
At least Frank adds good dental hygiene to his smear of an entire nation. Frank and Cora’s attitude was not unusual for white persons during the dust bowl era of the United States. The reader is left to ponder, however, whether Cora isn’t in denial, expressing an early form of Mexican American self-hatred. All in all, Mex is a much softer term than Cain might have used, given the racially charged atmosphere of the Depression era.
Mexicans, Mexicans everywhere, but where are the Mexicans?
From bit players to detectives to killers, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have added a realistic touch to what can be an unrealistic genre. As the body count climbs higher and the sleuth unwittingly stumbles into harm’s way, a Mexican here or there injects verisimilitude, sets a tone of truth. But Mexican characters also have...