Take Out Some Insurance, Insurance Today*

InsuranceInsurance companies are very much like other businesses in one sense: they want to make money. And they don’t earn money by paying out claims. So most insurance companies want to make very sure that any claim against them is legitimate. The stakes can be very high, too, since some insurance policies include high payouts. So it shouldn’t be surprising that insurance companies and insurance investigators play a role in crime fiction. My guess is that you can already think of several examples of insurance carriers and investigators in crime fiction; here are a few that have occurred to me.

There’s an early example of a murder mystery involving insurance investigation in ‘Charles Felix’s’ The Notting Hill Mystery. Through a series of letters, testimonials and other documents, we learn that Ralph Henderson is an insurance investigator. He’s been assigned to look into the death of Madame R**, who died after drinking a bottle of acid during an episode of sleepwalking. Henderson begins to get some information on the case, and discovers that the victim’s husband Baron R** had taken out several life insurance policies on his wife. That immediately raises Henderson’s suspicions, but he can’t get any evidence of how the murder was committed. Still, it’s clear from early in the novel that the baron is guilty of the crime. Henderson’s even surer of that when he turns up evidence of three other murders. In this story, the ‘howdunit’ is more the focus than the ‘whodunit.’

In Agatha Christie’s short story The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, the Northern Union Insurance Company carries the policy on the life of Mr. Maltravers. When he dies, company representative Alfred Wright asks his friend Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. A great deal of course is riding on whether Maltravers died of sudden illness, was murdered, or committed suicide. So Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Marsdon Manor, where Mr. Maltravers lived with his wife, to find out exactly what caused the victim’s death. Poirot deduces the truth about Maltravers’ death, but at first he doesn’t have any proof. Then he works out a very unusual and ingenious way to get the proof that he needs.

One of the more famous stories featuring insurance companies is James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. In that novel, we meet Walter Huff, an insurance agent for General Fidelity of California. That company underwrites the automobile policy on a car owned by a certain Mr. Nirdlinger. When Huff visits Nirdlinger’s house to talk to him about renewing his policy, he meets Nirdlinger’s wife Phyllis. It’s not long before she begins flirting with him and he finds himself attracted to her too. Still, he has no illusions about her. She wants to take out a double-indemnity accident policy on her husband’s life and then arrange an ‘accident’ for him so that she can collect the insurance money. Huff’s been wanting to find a quick way to ‘beat the system’ himself, so he falls in with her plans, and the two work out a plan for insurance fraud. At first it seems that the plan will work well. But then, something goes wrong and before long, things quickly spiral out of control…

There are of course plenty of other novels and stories that feature plots involving insurance investigators and insurance money. There are also several sleuths who are or have been insurance investigators. One of them is Peter Corris’ Sydney-based PI Cliff Hardy. As we learn in The Dying Trade, Hardy once worked for an insurance company:

‘… – long hours, high mileage and pathetic incendiarists. The work had coated my fingers with nicotine, scuttled my marriage and put fat around my waistline and wits. The deals and hush-money made divorce work seem clean as riding a wave and bodyguarding noble and manly.’

Corris has long since parted company with his insurance employer. But he still occasionally uses his company business card when he thinks it’ll give him access to people who’d be reluctant to talk to a private investigator. He’s kept his share of contacts too, from those days, and taps them as a resource when necessary.

In many novels of Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series,’ her PI sleuth Kinsey Millhone does occasional insurance investigation work for California Fidelity Insurance. The arrangement is that the company allows Millhone office space on their premises so that she can meet her private clients and carry on her business. In return, Millhone looks into cases of possible arson, wrongful death and other cases where the company may have to pay a big claim. That relationship isn’t always a smooth one (saying more would give away a story arc that I don’t want to spoil). But several of Millhone’s California Fidelity cases come up as sub-plots in this series. And even though she’s not an ‘official’ full-time employee, we get to see how insurance companies went about investigating claims before there was the Internet and the ‘smart ‘phone.’

And then there’s Susan Slater’s Rollover. That’s the story of a bank robbery, a valuable haul, and insurance investigator Dan Mahoney. Mahoney works for United Life and Casualty, the company that insured a Tiffany necklace stolen from one of the safety deposit boxes at the First Community Bank of Wagon Mound (New Mexico). Needless to say, the robbers do not want Mahoney to catch them or to find the necklace… I’ll admit I’ve not (yet) read this one. But it was the review of this at Kittling: Books that got me thinking about insurance companies and insurance investigators. So…. thanks to Cathy at Kittling: Books for the inspiration. While you’re checking out her post, do look around the site. Among other things, you’ll find terrific reviews of all sorts of crime fiction.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to pay on my policies…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from J.J. Cale’s Take Out Some Insurance.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Felix, James M. Cain, Peter Corris, Sue Grafton, Susan Slater

30 responses to “Take Out Some Insurance, Insurance Today*

  1. Another inspired post Margot and of course real life murderers used this method, most notoriously Mary Ann Cotton in Victorian Britain who murdered 21 people by poisoning them.

    • Cleo – Thanks for the kind words. And the example of Mary Ann Cotton is an excellent one. It shows that sometimes truth is at least as sinister anything crime writers dream up…

  2. Some great examples here Margot – the Cain is the only one I’ve read, but on your say so (from a previous post) I am just about to embark on my first Peter Corriss mystery

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. I really hope you’ll enjoy your first foray into Corris’ world. I think he’s quite talented, and although his work’s hardly light and easy, it’s got some wit and a real sense of Sydney. I’ll be keen to know what you think of it.

  3. What great examples! I love Double Indemnity, and Kinsey busying round with the insurance jobs. I feel there are other books where a PI is trying to prove that a death was or wasn’t suicide/accident/murder, to decide on the payout, but I can’t think right now what they are. Always a good plot trigger though.

    • Moira – Thanks for the kind words. And I agree; the whole insurance payout issue is a very effective one for a crime novel. Not only is it realistic, but you can go at it from the point of view of a PI or a cop sleuth, or of a family member who feels wrongly cut out of the policy, or…..

  4. One of Margery Allingham’s better (and shorter) books, “The Case of the Late Pig,” will turn out to feature a more-or-less hidden insurance investigator as a central character – I can’t really say much about it without venturing into spoiler territory, as it is not known until the end of the book that the individual involved is, in fact, an insurance man…

  5. kathy d.

    Well, I must mention the great movie “Double Indemnity,” featuring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. It’s a real thriller and a classic.
    But, there’s another type of insurance that should be raised, too, not only the life insurance policy motives for murder by beneficiaries or those who think they will inherit the money.
    There’s health insurance industry fraud, too, where the companies conspire not to pay out benefits for medical care. That is done brilliantly by John Grisham in “The Rainmaker.” Not only is there quite a scheme which is uncovered by the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the course of a lawsuit, but this book is witty. I laughed my way through it, while marveling at how Grisham constructed the scheme to avoid payouts.
    I highly recommend this book.
    Since my father was an insurance company worker early in his work carrier, and then ended up being an actuary who figured out costs of health benefits and probabilities, I was raised with a healthy skepticism about these companies.
    And a hilarious line from a Woody Allen film shows him as a prisoner who says on his way to “the hole”: There is nothing worse than “the hole” except for 20 minutes with an insurance salesman.” My father enjoyed that line. .

    • Kathy – I’m really glad you brought up the health insurance field. There are plenty of medical thrillers and other ‘medical’ sorts of murder mysteries where that is exactly the point. The insurance company doesn’t want to pay out, and somehow is behind an untimely death (or group of them). It can be a compelling plot line.
      And thanks for reminding us of the film version of Double Indemnity. Folks, if you haven’t seen it, do check it out!

  6. I second everyone who has praised the film of Double Indemnity – a true classic!

    But I read a rather good short story recently on the very subject of crime being committed for insurance – I think the author’s name was something like…Margot Kinberg! 😉

  7. Check out Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only

  8. Double Indemnity is a brilliant book and I like the film versions it spawned: both 1944’s Double Indemnity and 1981’s Body Heat.

  9. Money is so often the motive in fictional murder cases and an insurance policy always looks like a good way to grab hold of some. Of course, something always goes wrong, even when one of the perpetrators knows the ins and outs of how an insurance company works, such as in Double Indemnity. Huff had two things against him: he wanted to prove that he could beat the insurance system and he fell too hard for Phyllis.

    • Carol – You make a good point. A good part of the lure of insurance fraud and murder is money. People think they’ll get their hands on quite a lot of it if they can get that policy, so to speak. And we certainly see that in Double Indemnity. Both Huff and Phyllis want the insurance money desperately. Add to that Huff’s feelings for Phyllis and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

  10. Margot, you should have mentioned and linked to your short story. It had such a great twist at the end. I like stories involving insurance companies because there are so many different ways the story can go.

    • Mason – Thank you :-). I’m really glad you liked that story. And you’re quite right about stories where insurance investigations play a big role. They can go in so many different directions, and there are lots of opportunities for interesting tension and conflict.

  11. Col

    I’m unfamiliar with the examples above. I have read the first in Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter books though. Brandstetter is a gay insurance claims investigator – worth a look in my opinion.

  12. Yes, what is it about insurance that seems to insure people dedicated to beating the system? We are such an over-insured culture and yet we have accidents and die at the same rate as anywhere else. I’m always confused about insurance – thanks for an interesting look at it. Think my old fave ‘Travis McGee’ in John D. McDonald’s series had a few insurance cases.

    • Jan – Good memory! The Empty Copper Sea is, in my opinion, a good example of the way MacDonald handled the whol insurance angle in his Travis McGee novels.
      You ask a really good question about insurance, too. I wonder if the whole question of beating the system comes from simply wanting an easy way to get money. And insurance companies are often seen as big and impersonal – not like stealing from an individual. So even people who wouldn’t consider, say, defrauding an individual out of money, might consider targeting an insurance company. Especially if the payoff looks both generous and easy to get.

  13. I’m with the rest of the commenters about your own short story Margot. A brilliant example and great twist 🙂

  14. Fascinating topic, Margot (and I liked your story, too). A long-forgotten author, Harry Carmichael, wrote a series in the 50s and 60s featuring John Piper, insurance assessor. Haven’t read one for years, but I think they were pretty good. There have been lots of stories on the Brides-in-the-bath theme, including Hillary Waugh’s The Eighth Mrs Bluebeard.

    • Chrissie – Thanks for the kind words. And thanks for mentioning Harry Charmichael. I’ve not read his work, but it sounds like exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post. I’ll have to see if I can find some of his writing. And you’re right about the ‘brides in the bath’ theme, too. In fact, that’s an interesting post topic in and of itself…

  15. Interesting topic, and a lot of authors (or books) I haven’t read. Lots more books for me to look into.

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