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Archive for March 14th, 2010

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1935)
by James M. Cain
115 pages
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

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The narrator of this short and direct crime novel is Walter Huff, who begins by doing his job as an insurance salesman, checking in on a client whose policies need to be renewed.  He instead meets the man’s wife, and from the moment she suggests that her husband needs to get some accident insurance – preferably without her husband actually knowing about it – he realizes that she means to kill her husband and collect the money. She romances Huff into joining her scheme, and pretty soon the insurance agent is not only using his knowledge of the industry to try and construct a perfect scheme, but also planning on collecting a double indemnity via an accidental death occurring during train travel. Of course, it wouldn’t be a hardboiled crime novel without things going wrong, and more things going wrong on top of that, and near the end Huff needs to decide if he will let an innocent person suffer for his crimes.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the 1944 film

The story comes at you very briskly, and the whole thing is over in a little over a hundred pages. It’s a gripping story, and the back cover has a pretty accurate quote from the Saturday Review of Literature: “No one has ever stopped reading in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books.” I think in the end I do place this book slightly below the other one I’ve read by Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice, if only because the characters do not feel quite as fleshed-out here, and except for the scheming wife, you sort of need to read in your own motivations for the actions of the characters. But it’s still a pretty great hardboiled read.

The novel was turned into a notable 1944 film noir, though from what I remember, I think the end plays out much differently in the film than in this book.

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