Monday, March 13, 2023

Double Indemnity

James M. Cain hit a homerun with his femme fatale crime-fiction novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. The bestselling novel was adapted to film seven times, converted into an opera, a radio drama and a play. It is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. So, how would Cain ever top it? Well, he really never did, but he came really close with Double Indemnity. This novel was originally published in Liberty in 1936. The book was later published in 1943 in the collection Three of a Kind, an omnibus containing Double Indemnity as well as two additional works by Cain, Career in C Major and The Embezzler

Like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity is told in the first-person as a sort of “if you are reading this then I'm in the deathhouse” kind of book. The protagonist is Walter Huff, an insurance agent in Beverly Hills. Like Cain's character Frank Chambers, Huff is a strategist who helps plot a murder when he falls for a young seductress named Phyllis. The problem is that Phyllis is married to a wealthy guy named Nirdlinger, one of Huff's clients. After Huff falls for Phyllis, the two collaborate on knocking Nirdlinger off to cash in on an accident policy. 

Like most of the femme fatale novels, which Cain perfected for similar novelists like Gil Brewer and Orrie Hitt, the murder plan develops into treachery, jealousy, lust, greed, and plain 'ole lyin' and cheatin'. The murder hits a major snag when Huff learns that Phyllis may have played him for a fool in hopes to run away with another guy. But, Huff gains some insight through Phyllis's gorgeous stepdaughter, whom he ultimately falls in love with. 

This book is rather short, but packs a punch. The gauntlet that Huff runs from A to Z in hopes to successfully murder for love, then backtrack to kill for vengeance is clever, compelling, and masterfully written. It's a tug-of-war as Huff clamors with the concept of murder, the ultimate sin. There's a deep mystery centralized as the narrative rotates different characters off the playing field. Who is truly innocent is one of the book's most perplexing questions. But, thankfully Cain keeps the characters to a minimum, keeping the plot development tight as the story expands outward into a brisk “man on the run” concept. 

Double Indemnity was adapted to film in 1944 by mystery powerhouse novelist Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. It was filmed again in 1973 and staged as a play in 2011. It's a prevalent bookend that butts up nicely with The Postman Always Rings Twice. While inferior to that masterpiece, Double Indemnity is still a mandatory read for any crime-fiction fan worth his salt. Highly recommended! 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

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