In The Spotlight: James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity

>In The Spotlight: Reginald Hill's An Advancement of LearningHello, All,

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


Filed under Double Indemnity, James M. Cain

32 responses to “In The Spotlight: James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity

  1. One of the great ones and a great movie too.

  2. Great choice for the spotlight Margot – this is a book that I think mostly holds up very well an d which might surprise those more familiar with the excellent movie version as they are quite different in many respects.

    • They are, indeed, Sergio. And it’s interesting you’d comment on how well it holds up. In many ways it really does stand the test of time; certainly Cain’s writing style does. Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Haven’t read it but love the film. But you said the magic words – 115 pages! On to the TBR it goes! I’ve been reading a few ‘books behind the films’ recently and really enjoying the old ‘compare and contrast’ thing.

    • I like doing that too, FictionFan. I usually end up preferring the books, ‘though certainly not always. As to this one, it is novella length; that’s a ‘plus’ in my book, too, especially given my tottering TBR these days. I hope you’ll like it.

  4. Haven’t read it but saw the film, which was excellent. Now that I know it’s a novella I may have to add this one too.

  5. Col

    Not yet read it or seen it……one day!

  6. I’ve not read this although I have watched the film and as you know morally dubious characters are one of my favourite types – and you say it’s short too, another one for the TBR I think!

    • There are definitely some morally dubious characters in this one, Cleo. And yes, it’s a novella, so it’s not overlong. I hope you’ll enjoy it if you read it. And if you do, I wonder what you’ll think of the differences between the film and the book.

  7. Another one I’ll definitely have to add to my TBR list. Thanks, Margot.

  8. I’m reading Mildred Pierce right now, and I’m hooked. Great post!

  9. I had put off reading Cain for a long time because I thought this book would be too noir or gritty or ??? but I really enjoyed this book when I read it. (And the movie.)

    • I’ve done that, too, Tracy – put off reading books because of what I thought they would be like. Sometimes, like you, I am pleasantly surprised. Glad you enjoyed this one.

  10. Margot, I know I’d enjoy this book, as I really do like the plot. It is such a perfect noir story. Besides, I have not read James M. Cain yet, so that’s another incentive.

    • This one really is a classic noir story, Prashant. And, since it isn’t overly long, it doesn’t demand a real time investment. I hope you’ll enjoy it if you read it.

  11. James M. Cain has always been one of my favorite crime writers. I really appreciated how you described the noir novel. His characters are often shady ones and the women often play the role of the femme fatale, seducing to get what she wants. Glad you spotlighted Cain. I’ve read four of his novels and equally enjoyed all of them but now I’d like to read his lesser known ones, that I looked up after reading your post. 🙂 .

    • Thanks for the kind words, Carol. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Cain did create some memorably shady characters and dubious femme fatales, didn’t he? And his writing style is, in my opinion, a good match for the stories.

  12. Kathy D.

    Full disclosure: Did not read the book, but the movie is a classic with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.

  13. Been a long time, Margot. Now I want to read it again. I did not know a real murder inspired Cain to write Double Indemnity.

    • I think, Matt, that this is one of those stories that a person can read more than once. There are different levels to it that come out as you read it again. And to be honest, I didn’t know, either, that it was inspired by a true case for a long time. I find that adds to the interest, at least for me.

  14. Love the book and love the film, despite the differences. It is really the classic noir isn’t it? Thanks for reminding me of it with your great Spotlight.

    • Oh, it really is, Moira! Both book and film are excellently done, I think, and I’m not usually one to enjoy a film that deviates too much from the book. This one works though. Thanks for the kind words.

  15. Hi Margot, Thanks for the analysis of an all-time classic, Cain’s Double Indemnity. I’m a great fan of the tough American mysteries from the golden age, though I do confess to being much more familiar with the movie than the novel. Glancing at the novel once again, I’m impressed by how Chandleresque Cain’s prose is, except that Chandler’s is more elegant. But here’s the catch: Cain got there first. Maybe there was something in the air about tough California writing at that time …
    Either way, it just goes to show: no matter how well planned – and executed – the perfect crime can be, things can always go awry due to the human element, in this case psychology. What was it the Edward G. Robinson character said in the movie: when two people are involved it’s ten times twice as dangerous.

    • And he was right, Bryan! Thanks for your comment; you’re right, of course, that Cain got there first, and it’s interesting to see his take on the tough, noir story as opposed to Chandler’s. Their prose is similar in some ways, as you point out. Their views aren’t too different either. Perhaps it really was something in the air… Glad you enjoyed the post.

  16. Keishon

    I love James M. Cain and Mildred Pierce is my favorite. He has some short stories, Baby in the Icebox that was really good. I’ve read all of his most popular books but it seems he was really prolific and I’d like to read his less than talked about books one day.

    • I agree, Keishon; Mildred Pierce is an excellent novel. And thanks for mentioning Baby in the Icebox; that’s one I’ve not read in a long time. As you say, Cain wrote a lot of good things. I ought to dig into his backlist, too…

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