Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
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's review
May 02, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: classics, crime, 2010
Read in June, 2010

When I was at uni I took a course called Film Noir, in which we studied the film noir genre of films - from The Maltese Falcon to Vertigo. One of the movies we watched was Double Indemnity (from 1944 with Barbara Stanwyck), hard to get at the time (our lecturer had to get the VHS from the States - we're talking the year 2000 here). It was a great film that stuck in my head, so I was thrilled to find the book.

Walter Neff is an insurance salesman in Los Angeles - a very good salesman. When he goes to the home of Mr Nirdlinger to renew his automobile insurance, he meets instead the man's second wife, Phyllis. Phyllis is a sexy woman who plays it almost innocent, drawing Walter in without him realising how he's being played. She wants to take out accident insurance on her husband without him knowing about it - which is a big no-no, for obvious reasons. But Walter sees a way of doing it, and he willingly offers to help her off her husband for fifty thousand dollars (which would probably be about five hundred thousand these days). The fifty thou is "double indemnity" on the usual twenty-five, and you can only get double indemnity on train accidents. That is, death by train is worth fifty thousand dollars.

Together, they carry it off. It's flawless. But by then, Walter is repulsed by Phyllis, and the insurance company he works for has no intention of paying out the money - his bosses are sure the accident was either suicide or very clever murder. And as Walter gets to know Mr Nirdlinger's daughter Lola, guilt crushes him. He sees only one way out: to kill Phyllis. But he's not the only one with nefarious intentions, and he's up against a woman with a dark and bloody past.

This is a tight, intense crime drama, narrated by Walter with an economy of words and a fast, clipped pace that creates suspense and tension.

She made another bunch of pleats. Then, after a long time, here it came. "Mr Huff, would it be possible for me to take out a policy for him, without bothering him about it at all? I have a little allowance of my own. I could pay you for it, and he wouldn't know, but just the same all the worry would be over."

I couldn't be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in the insurance business. I mashed out my cigarette, so I could get up and go. I was going to get out of there, and drop those renewals and everything else about her like a red-hot poker. But I didn't do it. She looked at me, a little surprised, and her face was about six inches away. What I did do was put my arm around her, pull her face up against mine, and kiss her on the mouth, hard. I was trembling like a leaf. She gave it a cold stare, and then she closed her eyes, pulled me to her, and kissed back. (pp. 12-13)

For the entire novel, I felt like I was there in the dark streets (it always felt like night-time, even when it wasn't). It was a tangible, visceral thing, conjured by such a superb and precise use of words. There's no filler, no padding; at only 115 pages you get a tight, tense, suspenseful story.

I raised up, put my hand over his mouth, and pulled his head back. He grabbed my hand in both of his. The cigar was still in his fingers. I took it with my free hand and handed it to her. She took it. I took one of the crutches and hooked it under his chin. I won't tell you what I did then. But in two seconds he was curled down on the seat with a broken neck, and not a mark on him except a crease right over his nose, from the crosspiece of the crutch.

We were right up with it, the moment of audacity that has to be part of any successful murder. For the next twenty minutes, we were in the jaws of death, not for what would happen now, but for how it would go together later. (pp. 44-45)

I have a vague memory of how the movie ended, which was rather different from how it ends in the book. The ending in the novel was bleak, almost gothic, yet just. It was a nice surprise - although "nice" isn't the word for it. The book and the film both offer the story in their own ways, making each a great story in its own right.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Cody Gillespie-Lynch You should try The Postman Always Rings Twice. Also by Cain.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Codes wrote: "You should try The Postman Always Rings Twice. Also by Cain."

Ooh thanks! Didn't know he wrote that :D

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