Book to the Future isn’t only about reading the so-called classics, you know.
I’m making it my mission to read plenty of popular fiction too. Ideally, I’d like to pursue as much variety in my reading as possible. Although it might seem as if I only read books by dead white dudes, that’s never been the point of this project.
As the years go on, deciding what to read is going to gradually become more and more interesting. And difficult…
This week on Book to the Future, a classic, hard-boiled story of lust, lies – and life insurance.
by James M. Cain
Published in 1936
One moment, mild-mannered insurance salesman Walter Huff is knocking at the door of Phyllis Nirdlinger’s home. The next moment, they’re sharing a kiss. Before too long, the couple are hatching an elaborate scheme to kill Phyllis’ husband and claim on his life insurance.
American journalist, James M. Cain wrote two novels that are considered classics of the noir genre. His first was The Postman Always Rings Twice; published in 1935. His second novel, published the following year, was Double Indemnity.
Cain certainly knows how to tell a compelling story. I read Double Indemnity over the course of a day, staying up until two in the morning until I turned the final page. There was no way I was going to sleep until I found out what happened.
Despite its svelte profile, coming in at a mere 136 pages, Double Indemnity is surprisingly complex. We’re presented with a main character – Walter Huff – who hovers intriguingly in the space between hero and antihero. On one hand, he admits that he’s had murder at the back of his mind for years, and has just been waiting for the chance to put his elaborate insurance scam into action. But conversely, he’s seduced by a woman who takes advantage of his weakness, his loneliness; who uses him to do her bidding. As the power gradually shifts between Walter and Phyllis, our two partners in crime, you can’t help but be drawn in; even if just to find out who will emerge victorious.
I wouldn’t dare spoil the ending for you, so I’ll say no more.
Double Indemnity is written as a confession. We find out why towards the conclusion of the novel. It’s narrated from Walter’s first-person perspective, in the past tense. Walter even stops to address the audience from time to time, explaining his motivations and defending himself against the reader’s criticism. This is what gives the novel its particularly claustrophobic atmosphere.
The foreshadowing begins as early as the first page. Here’s how the novel opens:
“I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers. It didn’t look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side…” (pg. 1)
It’s quite clever, the way Cain plays with the reader. We know from the third sentence that there’s going to be a murder. And we know that whoever’s telling us this story is going to be involved in some way. And all of that in less than a page. It’s brilliantly economic storytelling.
Double Indemnity is an intensely plot-driven novel. Like many crime novels, its focus is on the murder that rests comfortably at the very heart of the story. But while some novels would focus on the crime itself and provide us with little else in the way of details, Cain’s novel is different. For the most part, his characters are well-rounded; the novel’s dialogue is believable, though there are a few moments of brief cheesiness. It’s the plot that makes this novel what it is. We find ourselves actually hoping Walter will somehow get away with murder and emerge from the novel free and victorious.
There was one problem, however. From time to time, Walter dilly-dallies a little, telling us about the insurance company he works for, and the ongoing battle between one of his colleagues and the boss’ son. I’m not really sure what Cain was trying to achieve by filling us in on Walter’s work politics, as he doesn’t really follow up on it later in the novel. Cain’s backstory could have done with a little more time in the oven – it’s a little undercooked.
Double Indemnity is simply an enjoyable, well-written story. I defy anyone to fail to finish reading this novel. It grabs you, and before you even realise it’s happening, it’s sucked you into its world; a world of suspicion, tension, lust and betrayal – and keeps you there, entranced, until Walter’s finished telling his sordid story.
It’s a complicated, twisted little tale, but Cain tells it with surprising clarity.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
I love the way Double Indemnity messed with my mind. It’s definitely an entertaining read. Make sure you’ve got enough time to sit down and read it all at once, though. Once you’ve started reading, you won’t want to stop.
In a word: