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Double Indemnity

By James M. Cain

Vintage, 1989

ISBN: 9780679723226

As a writer, James M. Cain divides opinion.

For Raymond Chandler, who adapted Double Indemnity for the screen under the aegis of Billy Wilder, Cain was ‘a writer of the faux naïf type’ and not to be taken at all seriously.  By contrast, James Lee Burke wrote that ‘Cain saw meaning and dimension in the commonplace… I don’t think anyone could find a better writer to learn from.’  If I had to choose sides, I’d be in Burke’s camp.

The storyline in Double Indemnity (1936) may sound familiar: a wife conspires with another man to kill her husband for the insurance money and freedom, a diabolical distortion of the American dream.  It’ll be familiar because it’s basically the same set-up Cain used in his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934).  Both novels were heavily influenced by the so-called ‘Tyger Woman’ case of the late ‘20s, a notorious case wherein Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray were found to have murdered her husband, all for profit.

What is different about Double Indemnity though is that Huff, as an insurance agent,  is in a position of some authority and power.  He’s corruptible and he is corrupted.  Yet while he falls – and sordid though his dreams are – he can still feel guilt, contrition, the shadow of damnation.  A concern to avoid bad publicity leads the insurance company to give Huff a head start; they don’t want one of their employees implicated in a murder.  Justice is not so much blind as mummified and unwilling to act.

There is a real weakness to the novel in that it’s ostensibly Huff’s confession (it is written in the first person, naturally) yet he dies in the end.  The confession or statement is supposed to be addressed to Keyes, a claims investigator who’s one of Huff’s colleagues, but he’s actually introduced as a character in the novel early on.  Keyes is not the ‘You’ in Huff’s statement, as he really should be for Cain’s conceit to work.  Instead, the general reader is the ‘You’.  Clearly, the conceit is too contrived; it will not hold.

However, Cain’s spare, pared-down prose has an often elemental power, giving his novel the force of a parable.  And sometimes, as in the two paragraphs that close chapter 7, his prose soars and becomes almost poetic.  Almost.