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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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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
by James M. Cain
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
116 pages

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This is an almost archetypal example of hard-boiled fiction. You have a desperate man and an amoral woman, and when they get together they’re much worse than they could be on their own.  They commit a crime and think are free from it, but there’s no getting away from the things you’ve done, and they just sink deeper into trouble.  What looked like getting away with murder was only cosmic justice delayed for a brief moment filled with the apprehension of doom.

John Garfield and Lana Turner in 1946 film adaptation

The narrator is Frank Chambers, a drifter in his twenties who shows up penniless at a small, isolated gas station and restaurant run by a Greek immigrant who asks him to stay on as a helper.

The Greek has a younger wife, Cora, who is resentful of her marriage, where she feels she traded away too much of what else life has to offer for her current dull stability and security.  Frank and Cora begin an intense affair, and soon decide they need Cora’s husband out of the way if they want to have a future together.

The 1981 adaptation: lovely photography, but somehow less effective

This book has two notable Hollywood adaptations, in 1946 in a film-noir styled effort, which I think is the better of the two, and a production from 1981 starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, which tried to capture more of the grittiness and sexuality of the book, but I didn’t find quite as effective.  Reading this novel, I also realized what a strong influence it was on the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, especially in the death-row confessional framing story, and the theme of fate coming back around if you avoid it the first time.

This was the first I’ve read by Cain, but it was great, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his works.  Dark, nasty, and wonderful.

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