Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

by Lily Wren

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (1936)
2014 Category Challenge

OK, having read the countless reviews for Double Indemnity I’m left in no doubt that this is considered as one of the greatest books from the American noir, hard boiled genre. In many quarters it is considered a classic with James M.Cain as the master of noir. I really don’t want to argue with the majority however, having finished the book, I do seem to be at odds. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy it. I loved the story especially the staccato style narration which had me thinking of Spillane’s Mike Hammer every 3 minutes. I also liked the fact that it’s a short, snappy story which took me an afternoon to read.  I just haven’t been left with that ‘wow’ four or five star ‘classic’ feeling. This annoys me, not least of all because I can’t explain why.

But, for what it’s worth, here is my two penneth………..

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in the 1944 film, directed by Billy Wilder with a screenplay written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

According to wiki, Double Indemnity is a novella which was initially written as an eight part serial for Liberty Magazine. Our narrator and main protagonist, Walter Huff, is an insurance salesman who has been doing the job longer than he cares to remember. One day he sets out to visit a customer in order to sell an insurance renewal. The customer isn’t at home, Huff has a chance meeting with the wife and, as is befitting for this era and style, when a man meets a woman, trouble is not far behind.  From this initial meeting, the couple go on to develop a relationship which enables them to hatch and carry out an insurance scam centering around the murder of the husband.

Ah, if only he’d have been at home…..

“Three days later she called and left word I was to come at three-thirty. She let me in herself. She didn’t have the blue pajamas this time. She had on a white sailor suit, with a blouse that pulled tight over her hips, and white shoes and stockings. I wasn’t the only one that knew about that shape. She knew about it herself, plenty.” (p.10)

Huff narrates the tale in the ‘classic’ noir style which I did enjoy. The delivery consists of short, sharp phrases and sentences which bring to mind the classic noir films. It’s very much dialogue driven rather than descriptive.

For some reason the late, great, Frank Drebin/Leslie Neilson  kept popping into my head narrating something along the lines of:

“When I got home I received a call from Mimi Du Jour, she wanted me to come to the club right away. Since I had no idea where the Club Rightaway was, I suggested to go to the Club Flamingo. She agreed.”
Police Squad,
Revenge and Remorse (The Guilty Alibi), 1982.

Obviously, not a quote from Double Indemnity but I’m a big fan of Police Squad and it made me smile. It also highlights how influential the book/Cain has been on the noir style and on the subsequent spoofs such as Police Squad that followed much later.

I can’t deny that Double Indemnity is a great little book and definitely one of its time.  It’s snappy, stylish and the 30s/40s black and white film style oozes from the pages. It’s strong on story telling and, in the usual noir style, has its corrupted and corruptible characters – unlikeable people with no redeeming features and no shades of grey. If you’re a fan of the slick, sharp, dialogue driven crime fiction tale then Double Indemnity is the one for you.

I did enjoy it but I can’t explain why the book didn’t hit that ‘wow’ button for me.