21 October 2009

Double Indemnity

Walter Huff is one of the best insurance men in L.A. He can see a scam from a mile away - there’s no fooling Huff. But then Walter gets involved with Phyllis, a woman who is trying to kill her husband to collect his insurance money. Against his better judgment, Walter agrees to help and relies on all of his knowledge of investigating suspicious deaths to craft the perfect murder. He thinks of everything – the crime scene, the evidence, the getaway, the alibis. The only thing he doesn’t factor in his malevolent equation is Phyllis. Faster than you can say “wrongful death”, Walter is drawn into a deadly game of deceit as his perfect murder starts to unravel.

I love good hardboiled crime fiction. It's so atmospheric and has the most fantastic plots and dialogue. But, alas, like most genre fiction, hardboiled mysteries have a bad name brought on by hack writers who have no business writing anything, let alone this genre. In the hands of a capable writer, hardboiled fiction is a privilege to read. In the hand of a bad writer, hardboiled fiction is mind-numbingly awful. Bad noir will kill your brain cells quicker than Al Capone had Bugsy Moran’s boys whacked at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Fortunately, my favorite hardboiled writer, James M. Cain, is a master of the genre and his masterpiece (in my opinion) Double Indemnity is hardboiled fiction at its best.

Double Indemnity is fun to read, in large part due to the plot. This novel is very fast paced and has as many of twists and turns as a rickety roller coaster. (Double Indemnity was originally published as a serial; therefore, the story if full of cliffhangers!) And since Double Indemnity weighs in at a lean, mean 100 pages, it’s easy to get wrapped up in this book and read it in one sitting. If you don’t like mysteries because you think they’re clichéd, try Double Indemnity. There is no standard investigation in this book. The question isn’t who the murderer is, it’s will the murderer get away with it. The novel's considerable suspense is also generated through Walter’s impeccably realistic first person narration. Walter is a fascinating narrator. In a way, you want to despise Walter and you never really like him, but you must know what happens to him. It’s been a while since I’ve read hardboiled fiction, and when I started this one I kept thinking, “Why is this so different from what I have been reading?” I finally figured it out: Cain relies almost solely on action and dialogue to advance his plot. There is very little descriptive narration. This also helps move the plot along quickly, but don’t think for a minute that Cain doesn’t create a very realistic setting for his story. Cain is well known for creating very detailed descriptions of the occupations of his characters. His detailed descriptions through dialogue are, dare I say it, the Mark of Cain. This book is no exception. He goes into considerable detail about the insurance industry, in regard to accident policies and investigations (almost entirely through dialogue) and it’s never once boring. My only qualm with Double Indemnity: The ending is excellent, but the final chapter is a bit murky. It’s hard to figure out exactly what is going on. Otherwise, this book is flawless.

James M. Cain is one of the greats in hardboiled fiction…and for good reason. Suspenseful, authentic, and atmospheric, Double Indemnity is a hard book to put down. If you love hardboiled fiction, you must read Double Indemnity. And if you’re not a big mystery/crime fiction fan, this book is still a great read precisely because it is so original. If you're going to read just one James M. Cain novel, make it Double Indemnity!

Next Week: I am going to start a series! OK, it’s not a real series like Lord of the Rings or Anne of Green Gables, but it is my series. It is entitled (for lack of time to think of something better and less bureaucratic sounding) Zella Kate Presents: The Medieval/Renaissance Epics. (Say it with your most hushed, reverent Masterpiece Theater voice. There you go! That’s the spirit!) I am taking World Lit 1 this semester, and so far I’ve enjoyed all of the selections we’ve read. Wellll, after this week, we are starting medieval literature and will be covering Beowulf, Dante’s Inferno, and Hamlet. I decided to blog about each of those (not in consecutive weeks though. I think I’ll rotate between them and my pleasure reads every week or every other week.) So next week, barring unforeseen circumstances, I will meet you here with a review of Beowulf. Just bring your own swords. That Grendel may be a handful.


  1. Oh goody : ) Beowulf, Dante, and Hamlet are all awesome! I read the first two in my world lit class last year, so I'm sure you'll enjoy them.

    "His detailed descriptions through dialogue are, dare I say it, the Mark of Cain." Priceless. Ah, I love an amusing review. Thanks for telling us about this, I now have an extra book added to list.

  2. Rebecca, I love medieval lit. too, so I am really looking forward to writing my "series"!

    And I think you'll definitely like Cain, if you like Agatha Christie. Nothing at all alike, but same great plots. :)

  3. Thanks for this, Zella. Sounds like a good book, and I haven't read much crime fiction other than Terry Pratchett's, so this might be a nice place to start.
    Can't wait to hear your Renaissance and Medieval epics! That'll be sweet. I love Medieval lit. also.
    'Summer is i-cumen in, ludhe sing cuckoo!'

  4. Scott, I think Double Indemnity is one of the best hardboiled crime fiction book there is, so you couldn't have a better intro to the genre! Hope you enjoy it.

    Speaking of Pratchett, your Discworld guide has been very helpful to me. I finished Making Money and am now reading Mort. I love Discworld! :D