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Double Indemnity ()


Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (67)

    I know all their tricks, I lie awake nights thinking up tricks, so I'll be ready for them when they
    come at me.  And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel
    myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet.
        -Walter Huff, Double Indemnity

Walter Huff is just your run-of-the-mill insurance salesman, maybe a slightly sharper operator than most, until the day he stops by the Nirdlinger place to renew a policy and meets the new Mrs. Nirdlinger, Phyllis.  She takes an unusual interest in the details of her husband's coverage, even needling Walter about the possibility of switching to the Automobile Club :

    She talked along, and there was nothing I could do but go along with it.  But you sell as many
    people as I do, you don't go by what they say.  You feel it, how the deal is going.  And after a
    while I knew this woman didn't care anything about the Automobile Club.  Maybe the husband did,
    but she didn't.  There was something else, and this was nothing but a stall.  I figured it would be
    some kind of a proposition to split the commission, maybe so she could get a ten-spot out of it
    without the husband knowing.  There's plenty of that going on.  And I was just wondering what I
    would say to her.  A reputable agent don't get mixed up in stuff like that, 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.

    But all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots
    of my hair. 'Do you handle accident insurance ?'

Walter is just stupid enough, because he thinks he's so smart, that he helps Phyllis plan the perfect crime; together they'll murder her husband and make it look like an accident so they can claim the double indemnity payment on his insurance policy, a policy that they'll purchase without his knowledge.  But in order to get away with it they'll have to fool the company's paranoid claims man :

    Keyes is head of the Claim Department, and the most tiresome man to do business with in the whole
    world.  You can't even say today is Tuesday without he has to look on the calendar, and then check
    if it's this year's calendar or last year's calendar, and then find out what company printed the
    calendar, and then find out if their calendar checks with the World Almanac calendar.  That amount
    of useless work you'd think would keep down his weight, but it don't.  He gets fatter every year,
    and more peevish, and he's always in some kind of a feud with other departments of the company,
    and does nothing but sit with his collar open, and sweat, and quarrel, and argue, until your head
    begins spinning around just to be in the same room with him.  But he's a wolf on a phony claim.

Walter has just enough sense to know how long the odds are, but he's hooked :

    I live in a bungalow in the Los Feliz hills.  Daytime, I keep a Filipino house boy, but he don't sleep
    there.  It was raining that night, so I didn't go out.  I lit a fire and sat there, trying to figure out
    where I was at.  I knew where I was at, of course.  I was standing right on the deep end, looking
    over the edge, and I kept telling myself to get out of there, and get quick, and never come back.
    But that was what I kept telling myself.  What I was doing was peeping over that edge, and all the
    time I was trying to pull away from it, there was something in me that kept edging a little closer,
    trying to get a better look.

So he's in it 'til the bitter end, but the biggest problem, bigger even than Keyes, is that he and Phyllis will have to trust one another completely.  They can't afford to question each other's loyalty or motives at all, because :

    That's all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.

And, of course, since this is James M. Cain, there's not just one drop, there's a veritable deluge.

No one has ever written noir better than Cain.  It's easy to see why he was so influential, particularly on the French existentialists (see Orrin's review of The Stranger by Camus).  But they seem to have missed one very important, and quintessentially American, point.  These tales are starkly moralistic.  For all that the characters may behave amorally, as soon as as they take that step over the edge we know that a sure and brutal reckoning awaits.  There's something positively Puritanical about the whole genre, where satisfying your basest desires brings down a nearly cosmic justice upon your head.  I like that.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Comments:

Good Review of the Book

- Diego

- Aug-09-2005, 21:03

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