- Paperback: 128 pages
- Publisher: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; 1 edition (May 14 1989)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0679723226
- ISBN-13: 978-0679723226
- Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 1 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 136 g
- Average Customer Review: 31 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #214,410 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Double Indemnity Paperback – May 14 1989
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When smalltime insurance salesman Walter Huff meets seductive Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his wealthy clients, it takes him only minutes to determine that she wants to get rid of her husband--and not much longer to decide to help her do it. Walter knows that accident insurance pays double indemnity on railroad mishaps, so he and Phyllis plot frantically to get Nirdlinger on--and off--a train without arousing the suspicions of the police, the insurance company, Nirdlinger's dishy daughter, her mysterious boyfriend, or Nirdlinger himself. This brief but complex novel is a perfect example of the ordinary-guy-gone-disastrously-wrong story that Cain always pulls off brilliantly.
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Tautly narrated and excruciatingly suspenseful, Double Indemnity gives us an X-ray view of guilt, of duplicity, and of the kind of obsessive, loveless love that devastates everything it touches. First published in 1935, this novel reaffirmed James M. Cain as a virtuoso of the roman noir.See all Product description
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The style is dated, the motivation of some of the characters sketchy, the sequence of events abrupt but that all goes with the genre.
As is Cain's earlier book, "Double Indemnity" is set in Los Angeles in the 1930s and is a tale of violence and murder heavily influenced by sex. Both books are told in the first person by a perpetrator of the crimes nearing the end of his life. The men in both books are seduced by a femme fatale who wishes to be rid of a husband.
There are differences in the books. The "Postman Always Rings Twice" involves people at the lower reaches of society, a wandering, penniless drifter together with a young frustrated woman married to an older man, "the Greek", who operates a run-down gas station and restaurant. The supporting characters also are drawn from low life. The book has a strong sense of place. The descriptions of the shabbier sections of Los Angeles and its environs are as important to the book as its story of lust and murder.
In contrast, "Double Indemnity" is far more psychological and probes deeper into the inner lives of its characters. The sense of place is less important that it is in "Postman". Furthermore, "Double Indemnity" involves crime and lust among the middle and upper classes rather than by those on the margins. The main character and narrator, Walter Huff, age 34, is a modestly successful insurance salesman. His victim, Nirdlinger, is a succesful oil and gas executive. The femme fatale is Nirdlinger's wife Phylis, in her early thirties. Phylis seduces Nirdlinger to sell her husband an accident insurance policy and to participate in murdering Nirdlinger. Because the policy pays a double indemnity for accidents occurring on a railroad, Huff and Phyllis stage a scenario under which Nirdlinger appears to lose his life in an accident on a passenger train.
Unlike "Postman", "Double Indemnity" has a subplot involving Nirdlinger's daughter from a previous marriage, Cora, age 19, and her boyfriend, Beniamino Sachetti, 26, a student working on his doctorate in chemistry. The book has strong themes of sexual jealousy as Sachetti appears to be involved both with Cora and with Cora's stepmother Phyllis. Huff too is motivated to the murder by his desire for Phyllis, but he develops an almost innocent love in the course of the story for Cora.
Insurance policies are important in "Postman" but even more so in this book, as Huff's company struggles to find a way out of paying the $50,000 double indemnity for Nirdlinger's apparent accident. The aging, jowly, shrewd and cynical claims adjuster, Keyes, finds a way of unraveling what appears to be a flawless crime.
The story is narrated in a taut, laconic style with moments of reflectiveness from Huff as he comes to understand himself and his fate. I did not find Huff an innocent or unwilling participant in the actions described in the book. Rather, he is on the lookout for the main chance and takes the initiative from the outset in proposing and planning the murder of Nirdlinger. Early in the book, Cain gives Huff a long and revealing soliloquy in which he compares his life as an insurance agent with that of a roulette croupier. He says "I lie awake night thinking up tricks, so I'll be ready for them when they come at me. And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet. That's all. When I met Phyllis, I met my plant." (pp23-24)
Huff also understands Phyllis early in their relationship. He quotes her: "There's something in me that loves Death." I think of myself as death, sometimes. in a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I's so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness." (p. 18) As the novel unfolds, Huff learns that there were depths to Phylis' murderous, violent character of which he was unaware when the couple formed their plot to kill Nirdlinger.
The story unfolds with a great deal of tension and inner logic as the complex elements of the plots are pulled together. The book offers a tough-minded portrayal of the consequences of greed, hatred, and lust, but it offers a hint of the possibility of love as well.
I enjoyed getting to know both these early books of James Cain, "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity". Although sometimes patronized as "pulp" writing, these are serious, well-written novels worthy of a place in American literature.
Written as a first person narrative by the insurance agent, the writing is tight, spare, and lean. No word is wasted. Yet, the minimalism works to the advantage of the story, as it makes the intricacy of the plotting clear to the reader. Having seen the film with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in the lead roles, I kept hearing Fred MacMurray's voice in my head as I read the book. While the film deviates from the book in a number of ways, it is classic film noir at its best and well-worth viewing. Likewise, the book is a classic in its own right, and those who like hard-boiled crime fiction will not be disappointed.
"Double Indemnity" tells the disastrous story of one Walter Huff. An insurance salesman working a route in California in the 1930s, Huff spends his days trying to get clients to increase their insurance holdings. His life changes for the worse when he calls on a household where he falls under the poisonous charms of Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of a wealthy oil executive. When this woman inquires about procuring an accident policy for her husband in case he "happens to have an accident" while inspecting oil wells, Huff knows something is up. In his business, no one approaches an agent about buying accident insurance unless there's a nefarious murder plot in the works. At first repelled by Phyllis's roundabout suggestions to dispatch her husband, he soon falls in line with the plot by insuring her husband with a double indemnity accident policy that will pay tens of thousands of dollars in case the poor chap expires in a railway mishap. What follows is noir carried to the nth degree, as both Huff and his new girlfriend hatch the plot in minute detail. The insurance agent plans his alibi with the sort of meticulous attention one would associate with a master criminal. He coaches Phyllis on the finer points of speaking to the police, dealing with inquests, and interacting with the insurance agency. She'll need all the help she can get because Huff knows that the head of the claims department, Keyes, is one tough bulldog when it comes to investigating scams.
The actual crime, which involves Huff playing a central role in the murder, is a foul play masterpiece. No one should ever take a fall in this expertly carried out misdeed, but in James Cain's world murder will out every time. In no time at all, Keyes and the president of the insurance company balk at paying out a huge claim. After bandying around the idea that Nirdlinger took his own life, Keyes arrives at a suspicion of foul play. This conclusion sets in motion a whole host of maneuvers requiring Huff to take greater and greater measures to keep the whole thing under wraps. Complicating things are Lola, Phyllis's stepdaughter, and her boyfriend Nino Sachetti. Up until the explosive revelations preceding the conclusion, Huff still looks like he will get away with the wicked deed. The crime is brilliant with one huge exception: Walter Huff, insurance agent and murderer, forgot to investigate Phyllis Nirdlinger's background. If he had, Huff probably would never have jumped into this mess with both feet. Oops.
"Double Indemnity" the book isn't nearly as good as "The Postman Always Rings Twice." I had several problems with the story, the biggest being Keyes's quick analysis of what really happened to Phyllis's husband. No one, neither the police nor an insurance claims investigator, could figure this crime out with the ease that Keyes does. Another difficulty with the story is the conclusion. Once everything shakes out, I simply didn't buy what happened to Phyllis and Huff. Too, it just isn't a satisfying conclusion for a noir story. I also had a problem with Walter's sudden change of heart after he removed Nirdlinger from the scene. Here's a guy who is cool and collected, a guy who delivers a lengthy speech about how to commit a coldhearted murder without getting caught and why he is willing to rip-off the insurance company, and then he turns into a nervous nelly after the crime. It is conceivable that this could happen, but it didn't work here.
Despite these problems, noir fans will want to spend a few hours with "Double Indemnity." The book is exceedingly short, the story moves at a lightening fast clip, and the characters are interesting. After reading the book, make sure to check out the film versions of "Double Indemnity," "Mildred Pierce," and "The Postman Always Rings Twice." Then spend even more of your time reading Chandler, Woolrich (especially Woolrich), and Hammett. As someone who has read a fair share of noir novels, I think you will like these other three authors more than you will like Cain. I shall give "Double Indemnity" four stars because most of the book works, but it's definitely a lesser entry in the noir canon.
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Let me try that again. This is another of those James M.Read more
it is love at first sight Mrs nirdlinger is in love with Mr Huff.Read more