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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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)

Very short, only 116 pages in this modern Orion edition. A first person narrative, told by 24 year-old drifter Frank Chambers, this is a dazzling, blistering, feverishly compelling novella, that rare thing, a book which I literally couldn’t put down but read from end to end in an intense two-hour sitting.

Now this feels like hard-boiled writing. Chandler is a dandy, with his romantic lead, Marlowe, and his wonderfully inventive style. Hammett’s milieu includes surprisingly educated, middle class people – the rich sect followers in Dain, all the cast of Falcon are educated types and his writing is often surprisingly mannered.

Postman is hard-core lowlife, written from the point of view of a hustler, a drifter, a small-time crook with a long record of stealing and violence. We are thrust immediately into his limited worldview where he is always looking for the next con and we never escape this airless, hopelessly constricted world. By contrast Hammett or Chandler’s protagonists fly like eagles in a world of order, rationality and bourgeois manners. Ned Beaumont is continually making small bows or being kind to old Mrs Madvig. No-one is kind in Postman. It is a hustler’s-eye view of the world.

I caught a ride to San Bernadino. It’s a railroad town, and I was going to hop a freight east. But I didn’t do it. I ran into a guy in a poolroom, and began playing him one ball in the side. He was the greatest job in the way of a sucker that God ever turned out, because he had a friend that could really play. The only trouble with him was, he couldn’t play good enough. I hung around with the pair of them a couple of weeks, and took $250 off them, all they had, and then I had to beat it out of town quick. (Chapter 6)

Plot

Chambers hitches down the road to a diner-cum-garage and immediately starts conning the owner, Nick Papadakis. Papadakis offers him the job of mechanic and the second he sees Nick’s wife, Cora, he is hit by lust. Not love. Hard, physical lust, so hard it makes him throw up his dinner. By quick stages he seduces Cora who is sick of her husband. She won a beauty pageant in Iowa and came out to California to make her rep, but like so many others failed in movies and quickly ended up working in a hash bar, and when the Greek proposed to her, was grateful to escape.

Two small town losers with pitifully tragic yearnings to escape their cages. They have sex in his bedroom, in the car on the way back from shopping trips, hard physical sex. No wonder the book ran into trouble with the censors and was banned in some states. From their wish to be together quickly evolves the idea of killing the Greek.

They try it one night by her sapping him in the bath, then pushing him under to make him drown, while Frank stands guard outside the closed diner. It is a nailbitingly tense scene and at exactly the wrong moment a motorbike cop comes along and pulls in. They do the coshing but then chicken out of the drowning, make it look like an accident. While Nick is in hospital they have sex every night in the big marriage bed. Then the Greek comes home and Cora is overcome with disgust and Frank abruptly leaves, hitching down the line, pulling cons in towns, hustling punters at pool.

But Fate, a Greek tragic Destiny, intervenes to make Nick spot Frank in the street and beg him to come back, insisting – unwittingly – on his own death, for now Frank and Cora, reunited, their lust rekindled, make a more elaborate plan to kill Nick, and go through with it, with a whole string of unforeseen consequences…

The Law

While keeping Chambers’ low-life perspective, a big chunk of the second half of the book consists of the court case against the couple. Anyone with any childish view that the Law is about finding Justice would be quickly disabused: here the Law is a playground for two sharp lawyers to exploit the full complexities of the case simply to win. To emphasise the game element, Cain has the guilty couple’s lawyers making a $100 bet with the prosecution attorney, a bet he triumphantly wins and which means more to him than his fee.

The case against revolves around the revelation that Nick had taken out $10,000 life insurance just days before his murder. For the prosecution this looks childishly simple; buy life insurance for husband; kill him; claim life insurance. Frank is thunderstruck, he knew nothing about it; he and Cora are in a cleft stick because they can’t say, We knew nothing about the insurance when we murdered him. But their lawyer, Katz, pulls a rabbit out the hat by showing that the life insurance was simply an extension of an existing policy which a fast-talking salesman persuaded Nick to take out without his wife’s knowledge; and then, more complicatedly, discovering that Nick had policies on the property and business with numerous insurance companies, manages to persuade them that it will be cheaper to settle their payouts among themselves and drop the law suit. At which Cora and Frank walk free, a striking example of the way the impenetrable machinations of white-collar people casually control the destinies of powerless blue-collar people.

Can you hear me knocking?

Aparently there’s debate about what the title actually means since there is no postman anywhere in the book. In an interview Cain said the postman knocks once for a letter, which requires no reply, but twice for a telegram, which requires and signature and generally brings bad news. Alternatively, it could simply be that Death, or Fate or Destiny, comes calling twice.

Frank manages to escape justice in the court case and there is a honeymoon period where he and Cora adapt to life after Nick’s murder. This is not without its own tribulations as a) when she goes to see her ailing mother, Frank immediately lights out for a week down south and has a wild affair with a woman who invites him to go away altogether, hunting big game cats in South America (!) b) the dick Katz employed to take a statement from Cora that, yes, they had planned Nick’s murder, which was then suppressed as part of Katz’s complicated legal scheme to save them – this dick pops up with the transcript and tries to blackmail them.

But despite this danger from without, and a hard series of scenes after Cora finds out Frank has been unfaithful to her, despite these setbacks, they both feel some Fate or Destiny has bound them together and, after Cora tells Frank she is pregnant with his child, the novel almost concludes with a joyous carefree scene of them taking a day at the ocean, bathing in the warm water under a clear sky, carefree and happy.

Until the postman rings for the second time.

Hot writing

Puts Hammett and Chandler in the shade. Chandler is a dandy. Hammett’s style, as I’ve pointed out in another post, is completely external and turns his characters into robots. This fierce, fast first-person narrative throws us straight into the mind of this small-time crim and rivets us there, in his quick exploitative worldview, in his animal sexuality.

‘Cora. You can call me that if you want to.’…
‘Cora. Sure. And how about calling me Frank?’
She came over and began helping me with the wind wing. She was so close I could smell her. I shot it right close to her ear, almost in a whisper. ‘How come you married this Greek, anyway?’
She jumped like I had cut her with a whip. ‘Is that any of your business?’
‘Yeah. Plenty.’
‘Here’s your wind wing.’
‘Thanks.’
I went out. I had what I wanted. I had socked one in under her guard, and socked it in deep, so it hurt. From now on, it would be business between her and me. She might not say yes, but she wouldn’t stall me. She knew what I meant, and she knew I had her number. (Chapter 2)

No fancy underworld slang, no thieves’ patois, no horseplay with guns, no shootouts. This novel makes all of Hammett and Chandler look stagey and contrived. In his famous essay on Murder Chandler says Hammett returned murder to the people who actually comitted it, a comment I found hard to understand when I read Hammett’s books; something like The Dain Curse reads like an extremely contrived TV miniseries, with its elaborate backstory about the man who took the rap for a murder he didn’t commit, escapes from Devil’s Island, gets involved in a weird religious sect in San Francisco, with everyone pretending to be someone else and contriving elaborate plans for murder, staged suicides, blackmail, faking robberies and so on and so on.

Here, a cunning lowlife falls for a hot babe and they murder her husband to get him out of the way but are caught out by the Law. The return of Fate at the end adds a spookily convincing Greek tragic air to the whole thing, but this – not Hammett or Chandler – feels like it’s staring American Crime in the face in all its simplicity and stupidity.

Movie versions

So intense and powerful is the narrative line it has been adapted seven times for the movies, two plays and an opera. The 1981 movie with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange had an electric affect on my generation, but buffs reckon the 1946 version starring Lana Turner and John Garfield is the best.

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