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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

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My name:  Brian Martin

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

Double Indemnity - James M. Cain

Double Indemnity is a perfect crime scenario in which insurance man Walter Huff has all the angles figured. All but one, but it's a doozy: his partner is psychotic.

Cain's previous novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was about a couple of amoral types who were dangerous but hardly crazy. Phyllis Nerdlinger, on the other hand, is certifiable. Of course, by the time Walter figures that out, it's much too late. Unless, maybe, he can put her in the ground, too, right next to her husband, the man they killed for the insurance money.

It makes a difference -- that Phyllis is crazy. One of the wonderful, off-kilter things about the book is Phyllis's death obsession, but at the same time it keeps us from identifying with her, of feeling for her the way we felt for Cora.

Here, it's all about how we feel about Walter. And in that, there's a contradiction. One of the famous lines from the movie is, "I killed him for money, and for a woman. I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman." That's Walter, in a nutshell. We can appreciate that. But the line didn't come from the novel. In the novel, Walter writes, "I had killed a man. I had killed a man to get a woman." And I don't know who the hell that is. Walter jumps into bed with Phyllis just as fast as Frank did with Cora, but it isn't with the same all-consuming fire. How could it be? Walter has to plan a murder infinitely more complex than Frank ever did, and that takes concentration. But the fact is, he enjoys the challenge. Just not so much that it, or Phyllis, is worth it unless it's big. That's where the double indemnity comes in. "You've been thinking about some piker job, maybe," Walter tells Phyllis early on, "and a fat chance I'd be taking a chance like this for that." Maybe he does it for Phyllis. But he definitely does it for the money. That Walter lacks a clear driving motive is one of the weaknesses of the novel.

Like Phyllis's obsession with death, though, it also accounts for one of the more fascinating aspects of the novel, which is Walter's relationship with Phyllis's daughter, Lola. Cain drops the ball a couple of times in this book, but he somehow manages to snatch it back just before it hits the ground.

I guess you can tell I don't like Double Indemnity as much as I liked The Postman Always Rings Twice. Part of it has to do with the crime itself, which is really two crimes, of which the first -- murder -- is the least important. But that's not to say I don't like it. I like it a lot. I like it's perversity, even if it's all just a little bizarre.