Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (1936)

Cain wasn’t pleased at being lumped in with other ‘hard-boiled’ writers of the 20s and 30s.

I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort. (Preface to Double Indemnity)

And that he certainly does. Double Indemnity was his second book after the blisteringly intense The Postman Always Rings Twice, appearing as a magazine serialisation in 1936, then in a collection of novellas, only published as a stand-alone book in 1943.

As in Postman you are immediately gripped by the urgency and immediacy of the first-person voice, here of a fast-talking insurance salesman called Huff. On the first page he calls on a prospective client whose servant asks the nature of the call.

‘And what’s the business?’
‘Personal.’
Getting in is the tough part of my job, and you don’t tip what you came for till you get where it counts… It was one of those spots you get in. If I said some more about ‘personal’ I would be making a mystery of it and that’s bad. If I said what I really wanted, I would be laying myself open to what every insurance agent dreads, that she would come back and say, ‘Not in’. If I said I’d wait, I would be making myself look small, and that never helped a sale yet. To move this stuff, you’ve got to get in. Once you’re in, they’ve got to listen to you, and you can pretty near rate an agent by how quick he gets to the family sofa, with his hat on one side of him and his dope sheets on the other. (Chapter 1)

No slang, no shooting. The ‘hard-boiledness’ stems from the psychology of the character: his unrelenting calculatingness, scanning all the angles, perceiving and using others as tools to his end, assuming everyone else is doing the same. It is the war of all against all, as Marx described capitalism. No sentiment, just a predator scheming his next move. Later there’s a femme fatale and a murder then a load of complications. But the tone of heartlessness, amorality, anything for a buck, is there from the first lines. Strip away Mom and Apple Pie and this is, and was sidely seen at the time as being, the American Way. That unbridled capitalism turns people back into savages.

Femme fatale

Both the women in these books feature in the Wikipedia article defining a femme fatale as an attractive woman who seduces a man into committing a crime/murder. This is truer of Phyllis Nirdlinger in Indemnity, who persuades insurance salesman Walter Huff to put a life policy on her husband then murder him. Sure, she’s got a babelicious body etc which she uses to sway him, but it’s more that she presents an opening, a willing partner, to something he’s been incubating after 15 long years in the insurance business ie the perfect insurance scam.

Is she a femme fatale? She’s certainly given a rather melodramatic speech.

‘There’s something in me, I don’t know what. Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m 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…’ (Ch 2)

(These books are odd. At one moment they’re heartless, cruel indictments of man’s inhumanity masquerading in an everyman tone, and the next they’re grand operas. Phyllis’s speech is like a tragic aria.)

Feminist criticism would suggest that Cora and Phyllis represent one of the crudest stereotypes of the female, an age-old cliché of the woman who represents the desired and the taboo, that once you give into her sexual wiles you are lured all unwary over the boundary of morality into a World of Crime. A honey trap. The desired deceiver.

It’s true in both novels the first-person narrator is the man, and the woman is seen as a siren, powerful through her sex appeal, who is the proximate cause of a murder. Both only exist through the male text. Neither have defining agency. But neither Cora nor Phyllis is a siren luring the unwitting. Both Chambers and Huff are hardly innocent, are already criminals or have been planning crime for a long time.

In fact, from one angle, the woman in these novels is surprisingly equal with the men, in the sense that they are equally amoral and greedy and murderous. They conspire on about the same level and they are both as physically involved in the murder, Cora getting badly battered in the fake car crash, Phyllis lumbering along with her husband’s corpse on her back as in a nightmare. The only real difference is that, being written from the man’s point of view, the novels convey a very powerful (in Postman overwhelmingly powerful) sense of the man’s sexual attraction to his partner. But there is no doubting the intensity of Cora’s sexual attraction to Frank, or of Phyllis’s cunning deployment of her sexuality to co-opt Huff into her schemes. The novels could theoretically be rewritten from the woman’s point of view giving her at least parity.

The unsung hero

The sex-driven duo may fuel the first part of these novels, but the second half strongly involves the Antagonist, the figure who threatens all their plans, who threatens, quite simply, to expose them as murderers. In Postman it’s Stickett the District Prosecutor (though his role is counterbalanced by the smart defence lawyer Katz); in Indemnity it’s Huff’s boss at the insurance company, Keyes, who makes Huff’s (and the reader’s) blood run cold by slowly piecing together what really happened while all the time Huff has to pretend to be helping to uncover his own crime.

This is where both novels make their impact – the blood-chilling descriptions of the murder itself are bad enough, but both novels then score with the tremendous tension of watching the Antagonist know the Protagonist is guilty, telling him he knows he’s guilty, and then trying to prove it. Their pursuit, their detective work, their thoroughness makes the Protagonist’s heart miss a beat, and the immediate visceral first-person narrative means ours do, too.

The lights began to look funny in front of my eyes… He was all wrong on how it was done, but he was so near right it made my lips turn numb just to listen to him… My legs felt funny and my ears rang, but my eyes kept staring at the dark, and my mind kept pounding on it, what I was going to do. I didn’t know. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t even get drunk. (Ch 8)

Morality

Cain’s books really are directly and immediately about sex and murder in a way surprisingly few of, say, Dashiell Hammett’s are; Hammett’s are about fiendishly cunning investigations of often convoluted events or, as in The Glass Key, generate scores of pages of continually shifting theorising around a death which remains a mystery, at the core of the text.

In Cain there is no mystery and no pages of theorising. It is an adrenaline-fuelled, straightahead, no-nonsense narrative of a murder inspired by the illicit sexual attraction between the murderers and the dreadful consequences, the fear, the guilt and the reprisals. It is hard-boiled. It is noir.

It is, in fact, not really so immoral as contemporaries worried. In both the bad guy loses and is punished. The murderer Frank Chambers loses the sexpot who inspired him, Cora, in a car crash and then is convicted and hanged for murder. Huff discovers Phyllis had killed before and was simply using him to bump off her  husband, he is nearly shot dead by her, confesses to Keyes, is packed off for everyone’s convenience on a foreign cruise under a different name, where he meets her again like the avenging angel, they make a bizarre suicide pact and leap from the ship to their deaths.

Ie Justice is done, if not by man’s feeble justice system, then by the gods.

Movie versions

Made into a famois film noir,  directed by Billy Wilder with a screenplay part-written by Raymond Chandler, and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. The rather florid ending is notably rewritten to become a simpler, more tense encounter in her house where the lovers-turned-haters pull guns on each other and both shoot.

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