Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. James M. Cain was one of the best-known of American noir writers. His work has been well-regarded, both in its original form and in the various adaptations that have been made for the large and small screen. It’s more than time I featured one of his stories here, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Double Indemnity.
The story begins when insurance agent Walter Huff happens to be out in the Hollywoodland section of Los Angeles. It occurs to him that he’s not far from the home of one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, so he decides to visit and get a renewal on Nirdlinger’s insurance policy. Nirdilinger isn’t home when Huff gets there, but his wife Phyllis is. She and Huff start talking and it’s not long before Huff falls for Phyllis. She doesn’t discourage him, either.
Soon, Phyllis confesses that she wants to kill her husband; in fact, she wants to take out an accident policy so that she can inherit from him. By now Huff is besotted enough that he offers to help. He even puts together the double indemnity policy – a policy that will pay double its face value in the case of an accident or murder (provided the murderer does not benefit, and is not associated with a beneficiary). Together, the two plot every detail of the murder, which is to have the appearance of a railroad accident.
The right time finally comes, and the murder is carried out as planned. And that’s when it really begins to occur to Huff what he’s actually done:
‘I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a finger at me, and I would have to die.’
Soon enough, though, Huff learns that he has more to deal with than his own sense of guilt.
For one thing, there’s the fact that his employer is, quite naturally, investigating Nirdlinger’s death. After all, the company will have to pay the claim if it’s proved not to be a suicide, so the company wants the facts to be on its side. So at the same time as he’s supposed to be working on the investigation, Huff is also forced to try to protect both himself and Phyllis.
Matters soon get even more complicated when Huff meets his victim’s daughter (and Phyllis’ stepdaughter) Lola. They develop a friendship (‘though Huff would like it to be more than that). From Lola, Huff finds out, little by little, about what Phyllis is really like. He also sees clearly that he will have to hide the truth from Lola, who is just as determined to find it out. As things spiral more and more out of control, Huff decides he’ll have to take some drastic action.
This is a noir story, so as you can imagine, it does not end happily for most of the characters. And it isn’t light fare. While it’s not explicit (in fact, there’s very little ‘on stage’ violence or sex), it’s a bleak story. There’s plenty of backstabbing, jealousy and betrayal. And, as is the case with most noir stories, it’s hard to tell exactly who can be trusted. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, really, no-one can be trusted entirely. Huff even admits to himself that he’s just as guilty as anyone else. Still, readers who do not like a great deal of violence and gore in their stories will be pleased to know that there isn’t much of it in this one.
The writing style reflects the sort of ‘hardboiled’ story this is. At one point, for instance, Huff is thinking about whether Phyllis ought to sue for the insurance money:
‘If she sued, and lost her head on that witness stand, God knows what might happen. If she didn’t sue, that would be still worse. Her not trying to collect on that policy, that would look so bad it might even pull the police in. I didn’t dare call her up, because for all I knew even now her wires might be tapped.’
It’s a tough writing style, lean in places.
The story is told from Walter Huff’s point of view (in first person), so his character is an important element in it, and we learn the way he thinks. At no point does he ‘play the victim,’ as the saying goes. He admits right from the start that he’s a co-conspirator and a murderer. Readers who appreciate morally ambiguous characters will appreciate Walter Huff. On the one hand, he is, quite frankly, a killer. On the other, without spoiling the story, I can say that he tries to find a way to make it right. And he is quite clear-eyed about his own role in everything. A criminal he may be, but self-deluded he is not. He is a sort of ‘everyman’ with strengths and weaknesses, as we all have. That invites the reader to wonder, ‘What would I do in the same situation?’
Another element in this story is the psychological. Without getting clinical about it, Cain explores the nature of obsession, guilt, manipulation, attraction, and the psychological hold people can have over one another. This invites the reader to consider what might lead someone who might never have considered it before to commit murder. Cain also explores the layers of secrets people can have.
Two other notes are in order about this story. First, it’s a novella, so it reads quickly (about 115 pages). Readers who would like to try Cain’s work, but aren’t sure how much time they want to invest will want to know that. Another interesting point about this story is that it is loosely based on the real-life saga of Ruth Snyder, who was executed in 1928 for the murder of her husband. In this case, her partner in crime wasn’t an insurance salesman, but a corset salesman named Henry Gray. It’s fascinating to see what inspires stories.
Double Indemnity is the story of what happens when a normal (if there is such a thing), everyday person gets drawn in by attraction and obsession – and then can’t get out again. It features a ‘hardboiled’ story line and a web of psychological manipulation. But what’s your view? Have you read Double Indemnity? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 26 October/Tuesday, 27 November – Long Way Home – Eva Dolan
Monday, 2 November/Tuesday 3 November – Laidlaw – William McIlvanney
Monday 9 November/Tuesday 10 November – Real World – Natsuo Kirino