The Pequod Review:
Just over a year after The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), James M. Cain returned with Double Indemnity, an equally fast-paced but more intelligent and better-plotted noir thriller. The book’s title refers to a clause in life insurance policies that doubles the payout if death occurs in specific rare circumstances (e.g., from a passenger rail accident, at the time one of the safest forms of transportation). The novel begins with one of the most memorable scenes in all of American crime fiction: insurance salesman Walter Huff visits a married couple to renew their auto insurance policy, only to find the wife home alone. When she inquires about a “double indemnity” life insurance policy that would pay out in the case of her husband’s accidental death, Huff immediately sees what she is proposing (“I was going to get out of there, and drop those renewals and everything else about her like a red-hot poker”). But he doesn’t leave because (1) he is attracted to her, and (2) he knows enough about insurance underwriting that he thinks they can get away with it.
Cain’s extraordinary book, and the way he draws narrative tension from the seemingly dry subject of insurance policies, recalls Jose Ortega y Gasset’s observation that “Within the novel almost anything fits: science, religion, sociology, aesthetic criticism…the novel lends itself more easily than any other literary form to absorbing elements alien to art.” Cain himself was a former insurance adjuster, and the book is told with the authentic details of someone who knew first-hand how insurance polices work: how they are structured, what agreements need to be signed at enrollment, and how the insurance company (and police) would investigate a death if it did occur. And in addition to the strong plot is Cain’s excellent noir dialogue, as well as a narrative structure told from the perspective of the guilty parties (which gives readers an illicit thrill as the deceptions of the criminals are front and center throughout the book).
Double Indemnity's plot made for a much better film than Postman's; the masterful adaptation by Billy Wilder (with script contributions from Raymond Chandler) was released in 1946.