Thursday, July 2, 2009

missed it the first time, hard-boiled edition: Double Indemnity

For some summer reading, Thursdays in July will be devoted to old-school pulp-fiction crime noir stories from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Haven't read any of this stuff before, so it's high-time for a foray into the bowels of hard-boiled. The first one--Double Indemnity by James Cain.

This is essentially the classic L.A. crime story. Murder, betrayal, greed with lust--but all of those things are supposed to be in a hard-boiled crime noir story. But in Double Indemnity, Cain takes the bore out of insurance and turns it into a captivating murder plot. (Don't worry, that doesn't spoil anything). The most refreshing thing about Cain is his pace, everything is so fast. Within the first five pages, insurance man Walter Huff knows that Phyllis Nirdlinger may be up to no good, yet he can't help himself to help her. When a nifty proposal comes to rid Phyllis of her husband (still no spoiler...), Huff has a fleeting moment of crisis, told with classic Cain panache:
"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."

Huff is a moral man when it's convenient. Though the story is told through his eyes, it's Phyllis that's Cain's greatest creation. Cain reveals her backstory, but her intentions and desire are always kept coyly hidden. She is a femme fatale, with a scheme up each sleeve. She gives Huff control for most of the novel...until...until, well she doesn't and Cain gifts us with one of his enviable twists, something that seems so forthcoming, yet still surprising.

And what about the railroad tracks? As the above book cover shows (so it's not a spoiler either...), Huff and Phyllis commit their act on the tracks with some nifty sleight of hand and tricky alibis that only an insurance man who deals with actuarial tables on a regular basis could figure. But even with their crime taken care of--it deflates the suspense in the relationship of Phyllis and Huff, allowing Cain to send them and on us on a whole other ride.

Instead of the stubborn detective, Cain gives us Keyes, an insurance supervisor who makes logic seem too eerie. Being on Huff's back from the get-go would be too easy for Cain, instead he weaves in the nuances of the insurance profession to peg Huff. The police can't figure their murder out, only a fellow insurance junkie. But Keyes punishes Huff in a cruel, but ultimately efficient way--Keyes is devoted to the system that Huff tries to buck and so Keyes' resolution to his Huff problem is best for the company and the worst possible for Huff.

Cain's style is always quick and always fleet of foot, so this is a real story, one with plot, one with characters who move, not ruminate. Yet, it brings up every ethical question under the sun.
Double Indemnity is worth reading for what it is, a master original that is the source for all those copycats.

Next week: Raymond Chandler/ Dashiell Hammett shorts
Earlier editions of Missed it The First Time.

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