No 422 Double Indemnity by James M Cain #1936Club

I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the woman.

I decided to read Double Indemnity for Karen and Simon’s 1936 Club, but have just realised that it may not be eligible as the novel was originally published in 1943. However, it did appear in serialised form in Liberty magazine during 1936, which is where my confusion has come from!

I’ll leave it up to Karen or Simon to decide whether or not it can be considered, but regardless, Double Indemnity was a lot of fun to read and a true classic of the noir genre.

Double Indemnity is a book that is interested in one thing above everything else. Plot. Cain eschews too much character development, descriptive passages or believable motivation in favour of driving this noir classic to its perfect ending. This is a novel where a man can fall in love with a woman ten minutes after meeting her and enter into a plot to kill her husband after ten minutes more, and it is all the better for that.

Walter Huff is a 34-year-old, experienced insurance salesman based in Los Angeles. He is good at his job, well respected but a bit of a loner. On a chance call to the home of the wealthy H.S. Nirdlinger to secure a renewal of his automobile policy, Huff is immediately overwhelmed by the curvaceous beauty of Nirdlinger’s second wife, the femme fatale, Phyllis.

In no time at all, the pair are lovers and have concocted a scheme to have Nirdlinger take out accident insurance on his own life, then murder him by staging his death as a fall from a train. Why a train in particular? Because train accidents were statistically negligible and insurance companies of the era paid a double indemnity on this type of death. Huff and Phyllis plan to split the ensuing $50,000 and run off together. What could possibly go wrong?

I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake. That night I did something I hadn’t done in years. I prayed.

Everything goes wrong, of course, but to say any more would be to spoil the delights of the plot of Double Indemnity. Possibly because it was initially serialised, it is briskly paced and superbly detailed and plays brilliantly with the idea that the insurance business is just a game, a game that is there to be won, if you just work out how to play it.

You think it’s a business, and maybe a little better than that because it’s a friend of the widow, the orphan, and the needy in time of trouble? It’s not. It’s the biggest gambling wheel in the world…

The crime itself is ingenious and the delivery of it is a bravura set-piece. As Huff tries to deal with the fall out of his crime – from hassles with the insurance company and new information courtesy of Nirdlinger’s beautiful daughter Lola – he discovers that Phyllis is definitely not the woman he thought she was, making Huff question his motive for getting involved and Phyllis’s motive for involving him.

I had done all that for her, and I never wanted to see her again as long as I lived. That’s all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate

Double Indemnity packs a lot into its 130 pages and Cain is adept at swift but telling character studies. As Walter wrestles with the existential dilemma in which he has found himself, it’s even possible to feel a little sorry for him. Phyllis is a wonderful villain, playing every man who comes her way with no redeeming features, while Huff’s boss Keyes provides a convincing moral centre.

The dialogue is snappy and sharp and Cain so convincingly captures the nuances of everyday speech in his tightly crafted sentences that the prose rarely seems overly forced. The well-crafted ending is nicely ambiguous and incredibly fitting as a comment on the novel’s theme of dual complicity.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray in the 1945 adaptation of Double Indemnity.

Double Indemnity is the archetypal noir thriller, the tale of a desperate dame and a vain and greedy man, of murder for profit and unexpected betrayal. Yet, courtesy of Cain, it has a strange, evocative romanticism and is as much a portrait of dogged friendship as it is a doomed and deadly romance.



The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

24 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’m not a crime reader but those quotes make me want to pick this one up. I see that Raymond Chandler co-wrote the movie’s screenplay. Hard to see how even he could improve upon that writing.


  2. ‘Double Indemnity’ is one of the few movies I have watched twice. I also much enjoyed the ‘Mildred Pierce’ movie and I have read and really liked Cain’s novels ‘The Cocktail Waitress’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’. I guess I’ve become a James Cain fan.


  3. Great review Cathy! It sounds like a wonderful piece of noir and I love that era of American crime writing (particularly Dashiell Hammett) so I ought to seek this out. Snappy writing and dialogue is often what makes this kind of book. And I think you can count this for 1936, since it *did* first appear during that year, albeit in serial form! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve seen all the classic noir films, before I had properly absorbed the fact that they’d been based on books, and maybe that’s why I’ve never felt the pull to read them. But, when I hear other readers discussing them, I can’t help but think that a mini-binge would be fun.


  5. I also saw this listed as 1936 and was tempted but remembered that I found the movie compelling but confusing! One of the books I read had two dates listed but I was halfway through so decided to read it anyway!


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