Book Review: Chestertown’s James M. Cain’s Epic Double Indemnity by David Bruce Smith


James Cain’s Double Indemnity is a “hard-boiled,” rapidly paced crime/detective story reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s, that frames murder and sex with little sentiment or passion.

Walter Huff is a 34-year-old, well-regarded loner-insurance salesman in Los Angeles. When he calls at the home of the wealthy H.S. Nirdlinger to secure a renewal of his automobile policy, Huff is almost immediately overwhelmed by the curvaceous beauty of the executive’s second wife, Phyllis.

Initially simulating ignorance about the matter, Mrs. Nirdlinger eventually manipulates Huff into writing up a motor car policy in her husband’s name, but without his knowledge—a practice that is forbidden.

“I couldn’t be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in
the…business. I mashed out my cigarette, so I could get up and go. I was
going to get out of there, and drop those renewals and everything else about her like a red hot poker. But I didn’t do it…”

The two construct a scheme to murder Nirdlinger, dispose of the body, and then stage his death along the railroad tracks. Because train accidents were statistically insignificant, insurance companies of the era paid a double indemnity of $50,000–a 2012 currency equivalent of approximately $820,000.

The overly-confident Huff believes he can design a nearly perfect caper, but agrees to participate only because he will collect half of the proceeds.

The conspiracy, however, does not unravel exactly as Huff envisions, because his boss balks at the cause of Nirdlinger’s death as reported in the newspapers—a fall from a train car:

When a man takes out an insurance policy…worth $50,000 if he’s killed in a railroad accident, and then three months later, he is killed, it’s not on the up-and-up. It can’t be. If the train got wrecked it might be, but even then it would be a mighty suspicious coincidence…No, it’s not on the up-and–up. But it’s not suicide.

After the annihilation, Huff and Phyllis avoid each other to deflect possible suspicion; during the interlude he becomes infatuated with Nirdlinger’s daughter, Lola—stepdaughter to Phyllis. She reveals that Phyllis, a former nurse, was responsible for the deaths of the first Mrs. Nirdlinger, and three patients under her care.

Slowly, Huff recognizes that his relationship with Phyllis is riskier—and more dangerous–than he calculated; in his build to alarm-regret, he imagines her betrayal; turning him in. The only antidote, he decides, is: rub her out; Huff will drive her off a scenic overlook, jump to safety before the car tumbles into the escarpment, confess to Lola, hope for her forgiveness, and achieve a residual of happiness.

He does not know Phyllis is a nimble assassin, but the very capable Cain—a citizen from Chestertown–configures it into their double-destiny denouement.

Double Indemnity By James M. Cain

115pp. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (paper) $13.00


Letters to Editor

  1. Jack Offett says:

    Great movie with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson–directed by Billy Wilder. Was nominated for 7 Academy Awards…The screenplay was by Raymond Chandler and it is considered one of the top 100 movies ever made by the Library of Congress…

  2. Debi Smith says:

    The Carol Burnett Show did a parody “Double Calamity” with Carol wearing an exagerrated platinum forties’ style wig…thanks for the review of one of my favorite writers, Maryland son and much-missed friend…

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