Double Indemnity

Posted: September 5, 2021 in Book reviews

James M. Cain.

Walter Huff is an insurance agent. Though basically a decent man he begins an affair with Phyllis Nirdlinger and, seduced by the idea of committing the perfect murder, conspires with her to kill her husband for the insurance money, which will be doubled due to a double indemnity clause specific to death involving a railroad accident.

The murder goes as planned but things soon start to fall apart. Walter’s colleagues at the insurance company than smarter than he thought, and Phyllis is a lot more dangerous than she appears…

Shameful to admit but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the film, or if I have it was a long time ago, but given I’ve been reading a lot of Chandler recently when I spotted this in the second-hand book shop how could I say no.

The first thing to note is that Cain is no Chandler, in fact in many ways he’s the antithesis of Chandler. Chandler is all about mood and character, dialogue and (wonderfully) purple prose. Plot is often the last thing at play in chandler’s work. By contract Cain’s prose and dialogue are a lot more workmanlike, but his plotting is superb. It’s not that he’s inferior to Chandler, they’re just completely different kinds of writers, even though they wrote in the same genre, and it makes for a really interesting contrast.

And it’s the plot that sells Double Indemnity.  From Huff’s initial dalliance with Phyllis, to planning the perfect crime, to trying to get away with the perfect crime, but this is no A to B to C story, Cain throws some bumps in the road.

It’s s short book (more a long novella than an actual novel) and a quick read, in part down to Cain’s style which will keep you turning the pages. The use of first person is good for getting inside of Huff’s mind—in many ways his agreeing to kill the husband seems less about Phyllis’ wiles than Huff’s own intellectual desire to game the system he’s spent years being a part of—but it does render Phyllis, initially at least, as little more than a cipher. It’s only later that her true femme fatale nature becomes apparent.

Anyway, this is a cracking little read, and you can totally see why Hollywood lapped it up. I’m interested in reading more Cain now, The Postman Always Rings Twice next perhaps?

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