Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Double Indemnity: James M. Cain


This is a very short book; in my edition, just 115 pages. The story is told from the point of view of Walter Huff, an insurance salesman, and he reveals everything about himself, not prettifying the picture of his plotting and conniving to commit a crime.

Walter visits the home of a man, Mr. Nirdlander,  who has purchased car insurance from him. His policy is up for renewal and Walter wants to get that moving. From the beginning the narrator implies that something bad has happened. He talks about the references to the "blood red drapes" in the newspaper accounts. And then we meet Phyllis, Nirdlander's wife. And Walter soon gets the sense that she is going to be trouble for him.

Later he comes back to visit:
Three days later she called and left word I was to come at three-thirty. She let me in herself. She didn't have on the blue pajamas this time. She had on a white sailor suit, with a blouse that pulled tight over her hips, and white shoes and stockings. I wasn't the only one that knew about that shape. She knew about it herself, plenty. We went in the living room, and a tray was on the table. "Belle is off today, and I'm making myself some tea. Will you join me?"
Walter is very smart in some ways, but dumb enough to let Phyllis lead him into crime. In hindsight he sees where he could have made better decisions, but at the time he actively and willingly colludes with her.  It is chilling to share this experience with Walter.

Along the way, we get a pretty interesting look at the way insurance salesmen and insurance companies worked in the 1930's.

And all of this in 115 pages. Amazing.

The story is very bleak; there is no expectation of a happy ending. I thought I would not like this story of depravity and greed, but I was wrong. I would not say I empathized or sympathized with Walter, but I did not find him or his story horrifying either. The book was much more enjoyable that I expected it to be. I plan to read The Postman Always Rings Twice (Cain's first book) and Mildred Pierce.

We have the movie adaptation of this book and my husband assures me that it is very good. I am looking forward to watching it soon.

See other reviews at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, The Game's Afoot, Vintage Pulp Fictions, and Scott D. Parker.

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Publisher:   Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1992 (orig. pub. 1936)
Length:      115 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Los Angeles area
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

18 comments:

  1. I may have this one somewhere in the tubs, not found it yet. I did think I might have read it a few years ago, but it was "Postman" in 2010.

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    1. It is hard to believe I waited this long to read this book, Col. I guess I felt this was too far out of my comfort zone. I was never big on cozies, but my reading in the past never got that hard-boiled, although I do remember liking Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

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  2. Oh, this is a compelling story, isn't it, Tracy? I agree that it's very bleak; still, it's one of those stories that keeps your attention (well, it did mine) and invites you to keep reading to find out what happens next.

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    1. It does grab your attention and hold on to it, Margot, and I really like that in a book.

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  3. This is the 1st book I read by Cain and I've went on to enjoy the others. I can't wait to see what you think of the other two. As I've reiterated for the umpteenth time, Mildred Piece remains my favorite. --K.

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    1. I knew you had read and recommended Mildred Pierce, Keishon, but I forgot that it was your favorite. I look forward to reading it, although it is longer than the other two.

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  4. Book and film - neither of them every gets old.... great stuff.

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    1. The film will be new to me, Moira. Or at least if I watched it, it was many many years ago.

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  5. BRILLIANT movie. So is Mildred Pierce.

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    1. Mildred Pierce (the film with Joan Crawford) is my husband's favorite of the three film adaptations of Cain's books. I have also seen it several times, and like it a lot.

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  6. Seen the film quite awhile ago, Actually years ago

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    1. Sometimes I feel like I have seen the film because I have seen so many clips from it. Looking forward to seeing it soon.

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  7. Tracy, I have seen the film too but not read the book. James M. Cain has been on my reading wish-list for some years now. I got to know of the author only after I started blogging.

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    1. We just saw the film last night (new to me but not to my husband). In general I would say I tend toward more upbeat books, but James M. Cain certainly grabbed me and kept my attention in this one.

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  8. Read it a couple of years ago and thought how this plot has influenced so many writers.

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    1. That is true, Neer. Watched the film last night and also watched a brief documentary about the film as a prime example of noir. The film has a lot of elements that are now common-place but were new at that time.

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  9. I've not read the book, but the movie is really, really good!

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    1. I enjoyed it too, Nan, after waiting all these years to watch it. I will have to watch it again. The actors were great, all of them.

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