Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain
New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1978
Originally published in serial form in 1936
List of main characters:
Walter Huff, insurance salesman for General Fidelity of California
Lola Nirdlinger, Phyllis’s stepdaughter
Beniamino “Nino” Sachetti, Lola’s boyfriend
Keyes, head of the Claim Department at General Fidelity of California
Old Man Norton, founder of General Fidelity of California
The image above is of the back and front covers of the version, published in 1978, that I read. All page references are from the 1978 edition.
My sister cannot believe that I call myself a fan of noir and I have never seen the film version of Double Indemnity in its entirety. (Until a few months ago, I hadn’t seen any of it at all!) I find it a little hard to believe myself, and I’m not sure why I balk at finally seeing it from beginning to end. I often like to say that I prefer the book to the film and that I want to read the book before I see the film version. But now I have no excuse: I have read James M. Cain’s book, and the film has to be added to the queue, right? With all that I have heard about the film starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, I imagine it will be just as good as the book.
Walter Huff is an insurance salesman for General Fidelity of California, and he uses his knowledge of the insurance industry to try to game it. He knows about double indemnity; it fits into his scheme to make money via murder. He meets Phyllis Nirdlinger by chance one day, while he’s out visiting clients and potential clients. One of those clients is Phyllis’s husband, but Huff notices Phyllis right away at the Nirdlingers’ home, and he is unwittingly drawn into her web, not the other way around. Huff begins to have an idea that he is in deep, but he can’t seem to pull away:
I live in a bungalow in the Los Feliz hills. . . . 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. (page 18)
Fate, it seems, is drawing Walter in; his attraction to Phyllis Nirdlinger, the femme fatale of the story, helps keep him trapped.
(This blog post about the novel Double Indemnity contains spoilers.)
Walter is given another chance to see what he is getting into, and the clue comes from Phyllis herself. She seems a little more unhinged than might be expected of a cold and calculating wife when she and Walter have the following conversation, before the murder of Phyllis’s husband:
“He’s [Mr. Nirdlinger] not happy. He’ll be better off—dead.”
“That’s not true, is it?”
“Not from where he sits, I don’t think.”
“I know it’s not true. I tell myself it’s not true. But there’s something in me, I don’t know what. Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness. . . . [ellipsis points in the original] Walter, this is the awful part. I know this is terrible. I tell myself it’s terrible. But to me, it doesn’t seem terrible. It seems as though I’m doing something that’s really best for him, if he only knew it. Do you understand me, Walter?”
“But we’re going to do it.”
“Yes, we’re doing [sic] to do it.”
“Straight down the line.”
“Straight down the line.” (pages 23–24)
“Straight down the line.” (pages 23–24)
But Walter Huff is no match for his partner in crime, Phyllis Nirdlinger. And he’s definitely no match for Keyes, the head of the Claim Department at General Fidelity of California. Phyllis’s words, highlighted in purple above, are echoed by Keyes when he describes how he’s going to help Huff leave the country. By this point, Huff has confessed his crime to Keyes, who is no fool. He knows that the protracted media coverage of a murder trial for a salesman at General Fidelity will be very bad publicity. So he concocts his own plan to get rid of Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger, too. Keyes arranges passage for Huff on a steamer heading south, and he even gets Huff to agree to write out a statement detailing his part in all the events leading up to his being shot by Phyllis and then hospitalized. Walter isn’t even aware of Keyes’s ulterior motives right away:
“O. K. on the statement, Keyes.”
“It’s the best way.”
“O. K. on everything. Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me.”
“I feel that way.”
“You’ve got no reason to thank me.” A funny look came in his eyes. “I don’t think they’re going to catch up with you, Huff. I think—well maybe I’m doing you a favor at that. Maybe you’d rather have it that way.” (page 122)
Huff has heard similar words, a similar warning, once before, but he doesn’t catch on until he’s on the steamer heading past Mexico:
What you’ve just read, if you’ve read it, is the statement. It took me five days to write it, but at last, on Thursday afternoon, I got it done. That was yesterday. I sent it out by the orderly to be registered, and around five o’clock Keyes dropped by for the receipt. It’ll be more than he bargained for, but I wanted to put it all down. Maybe she’ll [Lola Nirdlinger] see it some time, and not think so bad of me after she understands how it all was. Around seven o’clock I put on my clothes. I was weak, but I could walk. After a bite to eat I sent for a taxi and went down to the pier. I went to bed right away, and stayed there till early this afternoon. Then I couldn’t stand it any longer, alone there in the stateroom, and went up on deck. I found my chair and sat there looking at the coast of Mexico, where we were going past it. But I had a funny feeling I wasn’t going anywhere. I kept thinking about Keyes, and the look he had in his eye that day, and what he meant by what he said. Then, all of a sudden, I found out. I heard a little gasp beside me. Before I even looked I knew who it was. I turned to the next chair. It was Phyllis. (pages 122–123)
After Walter Huff starts plotting a murder with Phyllis and before he writes his confession statement for Keyes, he meets Phyllis’s stepdaughter, Lola. Before too long, he decides that he is in love with Lola, not Phyllis. (Cain pursued a similar theme—a lover switching his affections from mother to daughter—in Mildred Pierce.) This change in his affections doesn’t change his murder plans; it just complicates them a bit. He starts to feel guilty—but not too guilty—about killing Lola’s father.
Click here to see my post about Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford. Click here to see my post about Cain’s book and the television series based on it.
Walter Huff is clueless, right until the end: about Keyes, about Phyllis, and about Lola Nirdlinger. It’s hard to believe that Lola would understand his story and why he did what he did. But he seems convinced that Lola will see his point of view.