Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (book review)

‘I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.’ (pg. 84, Orion Books)

Some years ago now, I read (and loved) James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, but I’d never dipped into any of his other books. Then earlier this year, Max Cairnduff reviewed Postman and his review reminded me of the sharpness of Cain’s writing. As I’ve just come off the back of a run of reading translated fiction from the IFFP longlist, I wanted a change of scene, a different mood. Time for some noir, I thought, so I picked up my copy of Cain’s Double Indemnity and allowed it to sweep me away to Los Angeles for a few hours.

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Our narrator, Walter Huff, is an experienced insurance salesman who works for the General Fidelity of California. He’s mastered all the tricks of his trade, knowing exactly when and how to push (or back off for that matter) to bag a sale. As the story opens, Huff is paying a call to a client’s home in Glendale in an attempt to get him to renew his automobile insurance. His client, Mr Nurdlinger (great name), is out, but Nurdlinger’s wife, Phyllis, receives Walter’s call. Huff explains his reasons for wanting to see Mr Nurdlinger, and Phyllis gives him some story about how her husband is considering other insurance providers. But Walter soon smells a rat:

And after a while I knew this woman didn’t care anything about the Automobile Club. Maybe the husband did, but she didn’t. There was something else, and this was nothing but a stall. I figured it would be some kind of a proposition to split the commission, maybe so she could get a ten-spot out of it without the husband knowing. There’s plenty of that going on. And I was just wondering what I would say to her. A reputable agent don’t get mixed up in stuff like that, but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.

But all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair. ‘Do you handle accident insurance?’ (pg. 5)

Seduced by the allure of Phyllis Nirdlinger and her shapely curves, Walter is unable to keep away, even though he knows this magnetic woman spells trouble from the get-go:

She made another bunch of pleats. Then, after a long time here it came. ‘Mr Huff, would it be possible for me to take out a policy for him, without bothering him about it at all? I have a little allowance of my own. I could pay you for it, and he wouldn’t know, but just the same all this worry would be over.’

I couldn’t be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in the insurance business. I mashed out my cigarette, so I could get up and go. I was going to get out of there, and drop those renewals and everything else about her like a red-hot poker. But I didn’t do it. She looked at me, a little surprised, and her face was about six inches away. What I did do was put my arm around her, pull her face up against mine, and kiss her on the mouth, hard. I was trembling, like a leaf. She gave it a cold stare, and then she closed her eyes, pulled me to her, and kissed back. (pg. 13)

Walter’s dog tired of the insurance world. Just how many terrible stunts had he seen where people had tried to ‘crook the wheel’, thereby attempting to cash in on their policies? He falls for Phyllis and sees an opportunity for them to pull their own trick on the insurance game. In his review of Postman, Max describes the book as ‘classic noir territory. A man, a woman, somebody in their way.’ And that’s what we have here, too; Walter, Phyllis and the unfortunate Mr Nurdlinger surplus to requirements.

Drawing on Walter’s inside knowledge of his business, the pair set about planning what they consider will be an undetectable crime. All the big money on accident policies comes from railroad incidents, as companies will pay double indemnity if a person dies as a result of an accident on the railway. So, if they can pull it off, Walter and Phyllis can clean up; they can remove Nurdlinger from the picture on a permanent basis and cash in at the same time:

‘Get this, Phyllis. There’s three essential elements to a successful murder.’

That word was out before I knew it. I looked at her quick. I thought she’d wince under it. She didn’t. She leaned forward. The firelight was reflected in her eyes like she was some kind of leopard. ‘Go on. I’m listening.’ (pg. 22)

We’re only on page 22 here, but I’m not going to describe any more of the plot as this would only spoil the delights to come. Double Indemnity is superbly written, which I hope I’ve illustrated from the passages quoted above. The dialogue is tight and sharp, and the main characters leap off the page. I love the passages in which Cain gives us access to Huff’s inner thoughts; we find him wrestling with himself and the situation as the narrative unravels. And Phyllis is quite a creature; the ‘leopard’ passage I’ve quoted suggests a predator-like quality, and that’s exactly the type of person (or animal?) we’re dealing with here.

Alongside Walter, Phyllis and Nurdlinger, another character I should mention is Keyes, Head of Claims in Walter’s office. He’s another very skilfully drawn character. Walter describes Keyes as ‘the most tiresome man to do business with…always in some kind of feud with other departments of the company.’ In his obsession with detail, Keyes triple-checks everything that moves and can sniff out a phoney claim a mile off.  This spells trouble ahead for Walter and Phyllis, of course, but I said I wouldn’t dwell on the story…

Double Indemnity is a brilliant noir. Even if you’ve seen the superb film version, it’s well worth investing in the book (and there are some differences in the plot). My copy clocks in at around 135 pages, so it’s a pacey book and a joy to read.

Thanks to Max Cairnduff for prompting me to return to the work of this terrific writer, and for permission to link to his review of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Double Indemnity is published in the UK by Orion Books. Source: personal copy.

12 thoughts on “Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (book review)

  1. Brian Joseph

    Really nice review of this one.

    The film version is an all time favorite of mine. Based on your commentary and some other review that I have read I really want to read the book.

    The character of Keyes in the film was extraordinary and it sounds like he is so in book. I am in the insurance industry and teach insurance. At one point his explanation of how insurance works is a joy to listen to for an insurance guy like me. I have been tempted to play it for my classes.

    I never realized that this was such a short book.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian – if the film is one of your all-time favourites, I think you’d love this book! Yes, Keyes is such a great character, in fact I nearly included a quote from him in my review. It’s a very quick read, but a tight one – there isn’t a spare word on the page.

      Reply
  2. Max Cairnduff

    The film is extraordinary (and I think has a better ending), the book though is great. I loved your page 13 quote, the kiss, which makes it so apparent that she takes a moment to calculate before responding. I’d quite forgotten that detail.

    Anyway, I’m with Brian, it’s a really nice review. Cain tended to be punchy hence the length, he knew how to cut to the chase. Absolutely classic noir. I should reread it, or look out for some fresh Cain I haven’t read (I’ve only read this one and Postman).

    Thanks for the shout out re my Postman review.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Max. Yes, there were so many quotes I could have pulled from this book, but that kiss was a must. I need to reread Postman at some point, and I’ve also got a copy of Mildred Pierce somewhere. An amazing writer, probably underrated – I wish more people would read him.

      Reply
  3. Richard

    Thanks for the reminder about this, Jacquiwine–Cain used to be one of my favorite writers when I was younger, but I haven’t read a book by him in years. Time for a reread! Thanks, too, for your projected participation in Spanish Lit Month. I trust you’ll enjoy your reading for the event. Cheers!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Hi Richard – thanks for dropping by! Yes, I just loved this book, and the experience has left me hungry for more Cain. If you do reread any of his books, I’d be interested to know how you find him second time around.
      I’m excited by the prospect of your and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month and I’ll be reading two or three books – Nada and Severina are on my list, and perhaps one other (if I have time). And I’m looking forward to reading your reviews, too.

      Reply
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