Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Embezzler

There is widespread agreement that the Big Three masterpieces in James M. Cain’s body of work are “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Double Indemnity,” and “Mildred Pierce.” However, I’m told there are plenty of gems in Cain’s back-catalog worth exploring. “The Embezzler” was a short novel by Cain that was written in 1938 and sold as a serial to a publication called “Liberty” followed by reappearance as a stand-alone paperback,many compilations and paperback doubles. At times, the book was also released as “The Money and the Woman.”

The story is told by a bank executive named Dave who is sent to Glendale to investigate unusually high deposit activity in the bank’s smallest branch. Dave meets the man responsible for the booming deposit business, the head teller named Charles Brent, whose explanation is that he strongly encourages the local workers to save their money in the bank rather than squander it. Seems reasonable enough.

A few weeks later, Dave is visited at his home by Brent’s very pretty wife, Sheila. She tells Dave that Brent is sick and needs medical treatment. The only way Brent will seek help is if he knows someone trustworthy will be temping for him while he’s away. Brent suggests that she knows the job well enough to do it in his absence. Dave likes the idea of having pretty Sheila around for a couple weeks and agrees.

Relationship-wise, you can see where this is heading. With Dave and Sheila working closely together while Brent is in the hospital, the co-workers become closer and a level of inappropriate intimacy arises. Then, all of a sudden, Dave stumbles upon an apparent embezzlement scheme at the bank that appears to have been orchestrated by Brent, Sheila, or both.

That’s the set-up. A hardboiled forensic accounting crime story will only thrill readers so much without something special added to the mix. In this case, it’s Dave’s starry-eyed infatuation with Sheila that drives his bad decisions into golden noir territory. What happens next is a tension-filled white-collar crime novel that culminates in an explosion of violence and criminality. Recommended.

Appendix:

In addition to a couple stand-alone paperback printings, “The Embezzler” (aka “The Money and The Woman”) appeared in the following James M. Cain compilations:

Three of a Kind
The Baby in the Icebox
Everybody Does It
The Complete Crime Stories
Two Novels (with Double Indemnity)

There are likely others. If you own a Cain compilation, check it out as there’s a good chance this terrific little gem is included.