Double Indemnity, by James M Cain

Double Indemnity, James M Cain, book review by Ruth LivingstoneDouble Indemnity is a crime-fiction novel and often cited as a classic of the genre. First published in 1936, the book remains very popular. Why?

Written in the first person, this is a crime novel told through the point of view of the murderer. The language is simple and conversational, using the idioms and figures of speech consistent with the narrator’s background, era and nationality – he is a Californian insurance salesman. While I’m sure this was perfectly in keeping with the time, the language seems quaintly old-fashioned in the 21st Century. (I guess this is an important lesson in how quickly our contemporary fiction can become dated.)

“For what I had to do, I had to get rid of this guy, and get rid of him quick.” I like this. There is a direct immediacy to the writing.

“I had to find out what she had been figuring on, and whether she had gummed it up with some bad move of her own.” Not so good. I had to work this sentence out.

The book is short. The plot is convoluted. There is a lot of dialogue. There is a murder but it is not graphically described and there is no blood. There is sex – but this is not graphically described either. In fact, you have to assume there actually is sex.

What I liked about the book:

  • I liked the simple, direct language.
  • I liked the economic use of words. This is a short book.
  • I liked the way the reader is instantly inside the character’s head, reading his thoughts. This is a great way of producing instant empathy for the main character so that, although you are horrified by what he is doing, you end up wanting him to get away with it.
  • There is no happy-ever-after ending and the last chapter is a powerful example of understated drama.

What I didn’t like about the book:

  • The final explanation of the plot involved too much talking – or exposition by dialogue.
  • I found some of the plot points less convincing. Here are some of the things that bothered me.
    • How did this hard-nosed and efficient salesman fall so madly in love that he would end up committing murder? As the reader you are inside his head, but I was not convinced by his infatuation.
    • I was also not convinced that this same man would then fall, just as quickly, in love with his lover’s step-daughter
    • And, importantly, I simply don’t believe a woman could drag her dead husband (weighing 200 pounds) up onto a railway line on her own. There is a reason a ‘dead weight’ is called a ‘dead weight’.

Nevertheless, this remains a great book. Short. Gripping. I finished it in a couple of sittings.

You can buy this book on Amazon. Double Indemnity, James M Cain, book review by Ruth LivingstoneDouble Indemnity

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