Double Indemnity – James M Cain (1936/1943)

There’s a bit of a funny lineage with this one.  Double Indemnity was originally published as a serial in Liberty magazine back in 1936.  In 1943 it was featured alongside two other novellas in a collection titled Three of a Kind.  That same year, the story was first made available as a standalone novel, both in the Murder Mystery Monthly series (released by Avon Books), as well as a “pure” Avon paperback, the latter of which has one of the best covers I’ve laid my eyes on.  I myself ended up with the pictured 1947 Avon edition, and it lists copyrights for 1936, 1938, 1940, 1943, 1943 (yes, twice, not a typo) and 1947.  I’m curious what the 1938 and 1940 dates pertain to, but honestly, I never usually give this stuff that much thought… I swear!

The 1943 Avon paperback may have the best cover, but the 1947 edition isn’t bad itself.  It sits at 129 pages, which places it in novella territory, although at a glance the physical book doesn’t look much skinnier than 180 page brethren from the same period.  It’s a blazingly fast read, and I challenge anyone to draw this out to more than two sittings.  That’s not just because it’s short, but because it runs at such a pace that you’ll struggle to find a satisfying spot to pause.

Walter Mack is an insurance salesman, and while attempting to push a car insurance deal, he finds that his gorgeous client is more interested in surreptitiously purchasing a life insurance policy for her husband.  Sly, smitten, and not exactly the most moral of men, Walter uses his knowledge of the insurance industry to hatch a plan ensuring a double payout.

Double Indemnity isn’t a conventional mystery, so I’ll tread carefully, as where the story goes from here is best experienced on your own.  It’s always fun to have an inside look at the plotting of a perfect crime and all of the contingencies involved.  Then there’s the lump in the throat as the attempt gets carried out, and the realization that plans and reality are two very different things.

It’s a near perfect read throughout, with my one complaint being that my imagination foresaw a wilder ride at the end than I got.  I immediately purchased The Butterfly and The Cocktail Waitress (two different books, but yes, that would be a wild title) – not based on any actual recommendations, but they were cheap vintage editions with nice covers.  Throw James M Cain into the ever expanding list of authors that I need to find some time to get back to.

15 thoughts on “Double Indemnity – James M Cain (1936/1943)”

      1. The film, co-written (as everyone knows) by Raymond Chandler, is a real classic – pretty much created the Film Noir template all on it’s own. But it is so well made and so well acted that it bares repeated viewings while making a lot of changes to the book (the ending is very different, much less operatic).

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      2. Billy Wilder’s 1944 DOUBLE INDEMNITY movie is almost unique among 40s Hollywood movies in that it doesn’t pull its punches at all. And it’s dripping with authentic Cain sleaze.

        Unlike the 1946 THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE movie which is good but too sanitised. It doesn’t have the sleaze. You can’t have a successful James M. Cain movie without that sleazy wallowing in the gutter feel.

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  1. The Cocktail Waitress was my first Cain and I am looking forward to revisiting it. It’s not on the level of this one IMO but it is far better than the other later works I have read.

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      1. Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are pretty much the sum total of Cain’s literary achievement. once you’ve read those you don’t need to bother with anything else he wrote.

        They’re both brilliant books. No-one ever created less sympathetic characters. Maybe that was his major weakness. It’s impossible to care even a tiny bit what happens to his characters. But those two books are fascinating.

        Exploring the horribleness of the human psyche was something Cain did more successfully than all of the over-praised psychological crime writers of the 50s.

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      2. For my taste, nothing else I’ve read by Cain — Postman, Serenade, Mildred, Butterfly — came close to the perfection of Double Indemnity. I agree with you, it’s an incredible book, I just wish — as with, say, Jim Thompson — I’d found more to like elsewhere.

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  2. The 1943 movie “Ossessione” by Luchino Visconti is a much better film adaptation of the Postman Always Rings Twice than the sanitized 1946 Hollywood vehicle. It’s actually an excellent movie. Strongly recommended.

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