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Double Indemnity by James M Cain

I love the classic crime noir novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but somehow never got round to read any by James M Cain.  I wanted a short novel to fill in a couple of hours and with these 136 pages, I found a perfect choice.  Luckily, I’ve never seen the film, which was an Oscar nominated Billy Wilder classic starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G Robinson, and co-scripted by Raymond Chandler.

Double Indemnity is a term from the insurance world – in this case, a life policy that will pay double if the insured person dies falling off a train.  Walter Huff is an insurance agent, trying to get his customer Mr Nirdlinger to renew his car insurance. When his wife Phyllis opens the door Huff is instantly smitten.

…but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good was I going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know how.
But all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair.
‘Do you handle accident insurance?

Huff  sees a way out of slogging his guts out all day selling insurance, and together they start to plan the perfect crime using all of Huff’s expertise and Phyllis’ feminine wiles.

‘Walter, this is the awful part. I know this is terrible. I tell myself it’s terrible. But to me, it doesn’t seem terrible. It seems as though I’m doing something – that’s really best for him, if he only knew it. Do you understand me, Walter?’
‘No.’
‘Nobody could.’
‘But we’re going to do it.’
‘Yes, we’re going to do it.’
‘Straight down the line.’
‘Straight down the line.’

Phyllis is Nirdlinger’s second wife, and Huff hadn’t reckoned on bumping into her step-daughter Lola who wants a car-loan for her boyfriend. His heart has begun to harden against Phyllis with the murder plans, but when Lola opens up to him about her hopes for the future, he feels protective of her and softens a little. The murderous couple also hadn’t reckoned on the investigative skills of Barton Keyes, the company’s claims investigator, and he will reel them in – you can’t doubt it.

It’s a classic combo – the evil femme fatale and the weak man.  You do have to suspend your disbelief momentarily, in that he agrees so instantly to help do the dirty deed, but allow yourself to be hooked and you won’t put the book down, it’s superb. The dialogue is snappy, the whole story is told by Huff and has a doomed quality about it – you can picture him going through the wringer. I loved this book; Cain also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I shall be looking out for that as well as the film.   (10/10)

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