Friday, November 21, 2008

Forgotten Books: Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

I’ve come to a conclusion after reading two James M. Cain novels: Cain doesn’t think much of women and love. Or, perhaps, his life was filled with the wrong kind of women. That’s about the only explanation I can come up with when considering the two femme fatales: Cora from The Postman Always Rings Twice and her more evil literary cousin, Phyllis Nirdlinger, the dreadful black widow of today’s book, Double Indemnity.

I know, I know. You hear the words “Double Indemnity” and you think Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. To tell you the truth, I have seen the movie—once—a long time ago and barely remember it, even as I was listening to the book. That proved a good thing. It allowed Cain to tell his own story in his own way. And I can remember enough of the movie to know that the endings differ.

You know this story: Walter Huff, insurance salesman for General Fidelity of California, drops by the Nirdlinger house to get Mr. Nirdlinger to re-up his insurance. The husband is not at home but his wife, Phyllis, is. Here’s where Cain is sneaky. In many other hard-boiled novels, the female lead enters the book and the male lead is instantly in love, his eyes become hearts like the golden age cartoons and the little cartoon cherub smacks the man’s head with a huge mallet. Not here. Walter sees Phyllis thusly:
A woman was standing there. I had never seen her before. She was maybe thirty-one or –two, with a sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair. She was small, and had on a suit of blue house pajamas. She had a washed-out look.
Not exactly you’re typical femme fatale. But then the next page:
“…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 I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.”
Yeah, that’s more like it. That’s what we expect when we read these kinds of golden age pulp stories. But even Walter himself wasn’t ready for Phyllis’s next question: “Do you handle accident insurance?” Even here, in chapter one, Walter’s all “crossed” up. If Walter were a fishing man, he’d have known that the hook was already in his mouth and Phyllis was just tugging him to his death. And it is all there in chapter one.

Phyllis and Walter scheme to get Nirdlinger to sign an accident insurance policy complete with double indemnity: that is, the company would pay double if the insuree dies in an accident. Walter is brilliant at all the angles. In fact, as the story progresses, you get the distinct impression that Walter had wanted to test his theories for a while. He just needed a willing participant. Phyllis was that participant. Except by the time he realizes he’s in over his head, he's, well, sunk.

Walter narrates the story in first person. Cain is the only writer I’ve read where the conceit of the first person narration is exposed. That is, whenever we read a story told in first person, we, as readers, have to take as faith that the narrator is, in fact, relaying the story. It’ s like a transcript but it's not. In the two Cain novels I’ve read, we discover, at the end, the main character really is writing the book that we hold in our hands. I find that kind of fourth-wall breaking to be quite clever.

It also allows for Walter to comment on his own actions. Early in the story, after the two adulterers have started their conspiracy, Walter writes “So, I ran away from the edge, didn’t I, and socked it into her so she knew what I meant, and left it so we could never go back to it again? I did not.” Cain has Walter comment on his actions regularly throughout the book. I found this type of authorial intrusion to be worthwhile and helpful. It’s almost as if the book is a warning to any future adulterers not to go through with it. Wonder if Michael Douglas’s character in “Fatal Attraction” should have read this story.

Walter’s a smart man. You learn this throughout the story as he lays out, in detail, the intricacies of his plot. What throws you off, however, is Walter’s word choice. The most egregious example is the substituting of the word “don’t” in places where educated folks use the word “doesn’t.” This type of language could have come from Cain’s time writing and working in West Virginia. Or, perhaps, it was Cain’s subtle way of letting us know that Walter isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

The story progresses like you’d suspect, even if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book. Walter and Phyllis kill the husband and stage the murder as an accident. They have all their ducks in a row and then Walter’s boss, Keyes, suspects murder. And Keyes pretty much nails how the murder is committed. Walter’s pretty scared and realizes the only way to be safe is to take out Phyllis. But, she’s already ahead of him and she takes a shot at Walter, nearly killing him. Lying in a hospital bed, Walter confesses everything to Keyes in order to exonerate Nirdlinger’s daughter, Lola, from the suspicion she pulled the trigger.

You see, Walter has fallen out of lust with Phyllis but fallen into love with Lola. Walter realizes soon after the murder that he’s killed a man to get the man’s wife…but no longer wants her. They snipe and the body's not even cold yet. And this leads to the single best line of the entire book when describing how love changes: “That’s all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.”

Which brings us back to the crux of the book: Cain’s apparent hatred of love. It was love, or, at least, lust that made Walter and Phyllis act together. Having Phyllis as the idyllic reward for his act of murder blinded Walter. After the act, their love curdled if it had even been present in the first place. In Lola, Walter did find true love but he couldn’t have it. Don’t know about you but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of love and life from Cain. But, then, we don’t read these books for marital advice, do we. No, we read them to know what *not* to do.

The ending: I won’t spoil the ending here for those who do want to read the book. I will say this. The ending of The Postman Always Rings Twice was brutal but justified in its way. The ending of Double Indemnity is bleak, desolate. Perhaps its 1936 publication date had something to do with it. The heart of the Great Depression can suck the optimism out of almost anybody. (Let’s hope we still have hope in these immediate years to come.) When it came time to film the novel, I can just imagine the director, Billy Wilder, knowing he had to change the ending just to get the cash to make the film. Yeah, it’s that dark. There is no optimism. It was long gone as soon as Walter said, “Yes, we’re going to do it.”

What I Learned As A Writer: conciseness. It’s the same lesson from my review of The Postman Always Rings Twice: never clutter up the page with useless words. Patti posted an entry yesterday about reading stories online and story length. Some of the bloggers suggested shorter stories work better online (because of the medium and shorter attention spans) and longer stories are better in hard copy. James M. Cain would have had a field day with the growing list on online e-zines (newest one is David Cranmer's Beat to a Pulp). Cain's short, concise style—not choppy, mind you—would translate well to our online world. He says only what’s necessary and we readers fill in the rest. I like that style of writing and Cain, in my experience and with appreciative nods to Hemingway and Leonard, ranks as its greatest practitioner.

For more entries in Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Fridays, head on over to her blog.


David Cranmer said...

I've read Indemnity and have seen the movie countless times. Cain wrote this story that appeared in the Big Book Of Pulps (title is escaping me now) that featured extraordinary dialogue and a severed head being thrown from a car, landing on an ice covered lake. The image is burned into my head. Unforgettable.

Scott D. Parker said...

My goodness! I have that brick of a book at home. Think I'll have to crack it open tonight.

August West said...

We use the term too loosely when we review books, but this one is truly a CLASSIC!

One of the best books I ever read. And a great author.

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