“Tautly narrated and excruciatingly suspenseful.”



Double Indemnity – James M Cain *****

A few weeks ago I came in late from the pub, turned on the TV and sat through a brilliant old black and white film called Double Indemnity. The next morning the film had left such an impression I decided to read up on its background, found out that is was adapted from a novel and the rest as they say, is history.

I had heard of ‘noir’, but was never really sure of what it stood for or encapsulated. However, after reading Double Indemnity I have a much better understanding. The book is written in a way I have never encountered before. The sentences are sharp, direct and to the point. Cain wastes no words.

I think this is one of the only novels I have read where I have not found any extra padding. The author says all that he needs to say and nothing more, and this shows by the novel covering barely 130 pages. The only other Author I am familiar with that even comes close to this is Cormac McCarthy. You feel every word, sentence, comma and full stop was placed there for a reason. If I had to describe the style I would say it is like McCarthy but with little descriptive prose and less flamboyancy with the language. I know many people may disagree with this comparison, but as I was working my way through the pages I kept thinking how similar they are in the way they ensure every single word adds something to the readers experience.

The plot of the novel is pretty much straightforward, an insurance salesman meets the wife of a businessman and together then conjure up a scheme whereby they can sell and then claim on his life insurance. A plan is hatched that they both consider foolproof, but as the novel progresses small mistakes begin to unravel into larger issues and the pressure mounts. Other individuals are drawn into the circle such as the businessman’s daughter and the insurance mans methodical boss. The characters behave differently to how I would have imagined and I am unsure whether this is because the novel has dated slightly (rather like Nevil Shute’s works) or if this is a reflection of the Noir period. But what I do know is that from the first page I was gripped. Very often I will read a book and think to myself ‘does that sound realistic?, and if the answer is no, a certain amount of enjoyment is taken away. Strangely this was not the case here, I just kept wanting to read further and further, especially when the characters past history slowly became apparent. For example, from the first meeting of Phyllis Nirdlinger and Walter Huff they start to bounce off each other and the bones of the scam start to fall into place. Would this really happen that quickly with no trust built between the two?

Despite the lack of length I feel this book will remain with me for a long time, and like all good novels a number of questions will need to be answered such as what would I be prepared to do for a large amount of cash? Would I be able to be manipulated by a femme fatale? Could I be a Walter Huff, always on the lookout for the ideal opportunity to make a quick buck?

Fans of the film will find a very different ending to the one they are accustomed to. A number of reviewers have marked the novel down in their reviews because of this. I may be in the minority but I preferred the ending Cain chose. It has a slightly disturbed ring to it, but I feel it fits more closely with the characters state of mind.

I would recommend this read to anyone regardless of what genre of fiction they would usually indulge. As mentioned, the length is fairly short so why not take a chance? I did, and am glad I did so.


Reviewed by:

Lee Bridge

Added 15th April 2015

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Lee Bridge