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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Double Indemnity

by
James M. Cain


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Double Indemnity



Title: Double Indemnity
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Novel
Written: 1935
Length: 125 pages
Availability: Double Indemnity - US
in Everyman's Library collection - US
Double Indemnity - UK
Double Indemnity - Canada
Double Indemnity - India
Assurance sur la mort - France
Doppelte Abfindung - Deutschland
La morte paga doppio - Italia
Pacto de sangre - España
  • First published in the magazine Liberty (1935)
  • First published in book form in the volume Three of a Kind (1943)
  • Double Indemnity has been filmed at least twice: in 1944, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, and in 1973, a TV film directed by by Jack Smight and starring Richard Crenna and Samantha Eggar

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Our Assessment:

A : clever, fast, sharp

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 22/5/1943 Dawn Powell
The NY Times Book Rev. . 18/4/1943 John K. Hutchens
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/3/1969 Ross Macdonald
Time . 24/5/1943 Tom S. Reck


  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t is truly an astonishing style, rippling and easy in a nervous sort of way, the people talking as such people would talk, the writing vivid and direct." - John K. Hutchens, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The prevalent world view in Double Indemnity is a deeply cynical one; in retrospect, given how and why the story is being told (which is only revealed at the end), there can perhaps be no other.
       The story is told by insurance agent Walter Huff. He's been in the business for a while, and he's gotten to understand people and motives pretty well -- but when he comes across Phyllis Nordlinger he's immediately dangerously close to being in over his head. He visits the Nordlinger home to renew Mr. Nordlinger's automobile coverage, but only the Mrs. is there. And she's obviously interested in something else. Walter, maybe, but also a certain kind of insurance. Accident. "It's the one kind of insurance that can be taken out without the insured knowing a thing about it."
       Walter knows exactly what she's after, and he knows exactly what he should do:

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.
       Phyllis is simply too seductive. As is the possibility of the cash prize of a double indemnity claim on an accident policy. So they join forces and plan her husband's murder.
       Huff's been in the business long enough to know what it takes to get away with murder. He also knows there are three keys to success, and the one that amateurs always forget is sheer audacity. And the plot they hatch is admittedly bold.
       One of the keys is that it has to be a railway accident. That's where the double indemnity kicks in. And that's part of the audacity, because the insurance company knows that railway accidents aren't a very common way of getting oneself killed.
       It's a good plan, and Cain nicely describes how it's done, from getting the insurance policy (very nicely handled) to the alibis to the act itself. Huff has it all planned out, and while it doesn't quite go off without a hitch the hitches are within the built-in margin of error.
       The insurance company isn't thrilled by the turn of events. They hope for a ruling of suicide (rather than accident), but it's a hard case to make. Still, they're not thrilled about paying -- and they are suspicious. As the head of the Claims Department explains:
When a man takes out an insurance policy, an insurance policy that's worth $ 50,000 if he's killed in a railroad accident, and then three months later he is killed in a railroad accident, 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. A mighty suspicious accident. No, it's not on the up-and-up. But it's not suicide.
       No: it has to be murder. But that's easier intuited than proven.
       Huff isn't in the all-clear very soon, but not too much attention is focussed on him. Phyllis is under suspicion, and it looks -- to the investigators -- like someone else might have also been involved.
       Nordlinger's daughter (Phyllis' step), Lola, also complicates matters, especially when Huff falls for her. And he also learns that Phyllis is considerably more evil than he had originally thought (as he learns, for example, the fate of the first Mrs. Nordlinger). In fact, Phyllis turns out to be almost too bad to be true.
       Eventually, Huff decides he has to get rid of her. Only too late does it dawn on him that she might have the same idea ..... Crime, ultimately, does not pay, and Cain nicely, darkly ties it all together.

       Double Indemnity is an impressive novel. It doesn't have the heat of The Postman always Rings Twice, but, except for super-evil Phyllis, is largely more believable. The dialogue, especially, is excellent: clipped screenplay word-bites, with not a thing too much said. It's a compelling story, and though very dark (there are almost no good guys here) is still very enjoyable. Recommended.

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Links:

Double Indemnity: Reviews: Double Indemnity - the films: James M. Cain: Other books by James Cain under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author James Mallahan Cain (1892-1977) was, among other things, managing editor of The New Yorker and a screenwriter. He published his first novel when he was forty-two, and achieved great success with several hard-boiled classics.

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