The Institute by James M. Cain

Originally published in 1976

Professor Lloyd Palmer loves a good biography. His fantasy is to start an institute to teach young scholars the biographical arts, and it will take old money to make his dreams come true. Around Washington, the oldest money is found not in the District, but in Delaware, a land of wealth so astonishing that even the Du Ponts are considered nouveau riche. But when the professor goes to Wilmington, he comes away not with old money, but young trouble. Her name is Hortense Garrett. She is his benefactor’s wife, a twenty-something beauty trapped in an unhappy marriage, whose good looks conceal the most cunning mind this side of the Potomac. She needs a ride to Washington, and Lloyd offers to give her a lift. They’ve barely left Delaware before he falls for her. By the time they hit the Beltway, his biography will be in her hands.

I briefly contemplated skipping over writing up my thoughts on The Institute. For one thing it is barely a crime novel. Still, it is a noir-ish work and the blurb is suggestive (or derivative) enough of some of Cain’s early classic setups that some may be tempted to give it a go. Given how few reviews of this there seem to be floating around, I thought I owe it to any of those potential readers to save them some time and money: The Institute is an absolute turkey of a book.

The setup is that Dr. Lloyd Palmer, a university English teacher, has a whizz-bang idea to start an institute devoted to aiding those seeking to write biographies of American figures. His thinking is that biography is one of the great American literature forms and that they could provide financial support and resources to aid scholars in their work. He approaches multi-millionaire Richard Garrett to convince him to provide the funding and quickly wins him over. The stumbling block comes in the form of Garrett’s beautiful wife, Hortense, who refuses to relocate to Washington D.C. to serve as the President of the foundation.

Richard suggests Lloyd drive her into the city and try to win her over on the way. Instead the pair end up lovers. So begins an awkward love triangle in which the pair have to keep their relationship secret as they work together to get this Institute off the ground. This begs a number of questions: Will Richard find out? What will he do if he does? And will you even care by that point?

The Institute was the last of Cain’s novels to be published in his lifetime, just a few months before his death, and it is a pale shadow of his classic works. As with many of his stories the focus is on a seemingly doomed relationship between two young people, one of whom is in a loveless marriage, the other having a business relationship with the husband. It’s a setup found in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity – and also the much inferior work The Magician’s Wife (which, incidentally, reads like a classic compared with this). This was not necessarily a poor choice – Cain typically renders tortured, self-destructive love affairs quite well – but this is handled badly from start to finish.

One of the biggest problems with the book for me lay with the way that relationship between Lloyd and Hortense begins and develops. In those early classic works, Cain presents us with couplings that it is clear we are meant to view as destructive. In Postman, Frank and Cora are greedy and vicious with a mutual appetite for destruction. Their lust for each other is evident from the start and gives that book much of its power and the reader will likely be wanting to see them brought down by the end.

With Double Indemnity we have a similar situation. The reader may feel a little sympathy for Walter by the end of the book but the ending of that book feels right given the scenario. Here however Cain seems unsure whether to present the affair as something the reader wants to see punishment for or something to be resolved happily. It gives the book a confusing, uncertain tone, only settling on a side in its final few chapters. Unfortunately I felt that Cain picks the wrong one, leaving this reader feeling thoroughly unsatisfied.

One of the reasons for that is that I was repulsed by the manner in which the coupling begins. Hortense describes it as ‘rape’ – a descriptor Lloyd agrees with and repeatedly uses throughout the book – and things are not improved by the suggestion that she wanted it to happen. Cain played with this line before in earlier works but there it was clear that those relationships were negative and destructive. We are fascinated by those couples but it is obvious that we are waiting to see how they will be doomed. Here however the pair become trapped in a rather awkward, albeit somewhat sadomasochistic, domestic relationship.

The only tension then comes with the question of what will happen if and when Richard finds out. Cain keeps dangling that idea out for the reader, hoping that it will keep the pages turning as we await for that inevitable explosion when our protagonists suddenly losing control of events. I think that might have worked had the focus fallen on exploring the mental state of our pair of lovers. Instead though Cain decides to expound upon Shakespearian sonnet writing, the mechanics of starting a not-for-profit foundation, the popular conception of the Confederacy in the South and congressional corruption.

If that set of very specific interests captures your imagination you may find things to enjoy about The Institute. I do wonder though precisely how much of Cain’s audience that was likely to be. I will note for the record that I have a moderate amount of interest in several of those topics and I still found this quite tedious.

Are there bright spots? Sure. Cain’s prose may not be quite as muscular as in his earliest efforts but he can still turn a good phrase – just expect them much less frequently than before. I will also add that I think Cain’s enthusiasm for the biography as an art form is quite persuasive.

It’s not only a far cry from Cain at his best, it’s also pretty far from mediocre Cain. If you are desperate to read everything he ever wrote then this will certainly tick that box but otherwise I would avoid.

The Magician’s Wife by James M. Cain

Originally published in 1965

Clay Lockwood enters the Portico with corned beef on his mind. He’s a top distributing executive with Grant’s Meats, and the contract with the Portico restaurant chain is only the latest in a long line of boardroom coups. He comes for lunch, and eats his fill of his company’s beef, but leaves with an entirely different hunger gnawing at his gut—a volcanic passion that will tear him apart.

The hostess’s name is Sally Alexis, a magician’s wife whose rough-hewn charm mesmerizes this magnate of meat. She rebuffs his first pass, but calls him up later, to explain her situation and plead for tenderness. Although her marriage is miserable, she’s won’t leave her husband because she wants to secure an inheritance for her little boy. As the lovers get closer, Lockwood becomes an amateur illusionist himself, focusing on one very particular trick—how to make a magician disappear.

She’ll be a Merry Widow, that we know for sure, but not with your help. Do you hear?

Clay Lockwood is a businessman who sells readymade meals to restaurants. He is dining at the Portico restaurant where he meets Sally Alexis, who is working as the hostess. Sally charms him when she refers to him by name, in spite of never having been introduced, and the two flirt for a while. When he makes a hard pass at her though she admits that she’s married and turns him down, frustrating Lockwood. Later on though Sally calls him to explain about her circumstances and arranges to meet up in secret.

When back at Clay’s pad he declares that he wants Sally to leave her husband and marry him. She says that she can’t as she feels that she must stay in her unhappy marriage for the sake of her young son who is supposed to come into an inheritance. It soon becomes clear that Sally is angling for Clay to take action, a move he initially resists, but he finds his willpower weakens with each meeting…

The Magician’s Wife is a fine example of pastiche fiction, evoking memories of some of the famous early works of James M. Cain. The premise feels evocative of The Postman Always Rings Twice and also Double Indemnity at times, both novels which I really enjoy. The unfortunate thing though is that the novel is written by Cain himself.

The reason that this is unfortunate is that while this is incredibly readable, featuring plenty of examples of Cain’s lean and muscular prose, when an author so consciously revisits the ideas and themes of an early work you want to see something different to show either their evolution as a writer or presenting those ideas in a new way to comment on them. Instead he just presents us with what feels like an reprise performance.

Clay Lockwood is a pretty solid example of the typical Cain protagonist, exuding a powerful machismo and decisiveness as well as an inability to repress desire that will clearly be the source of all his trouble. His introduction to the story where we see him in action exerting his power over a restaurant owner, bullying him into signing a contract with his company, gives us a strong sense of who he is and what he wants from life. This suits Cain’s style of storytelling as he is a pretty straightforward character, allowing for some pretty direct storytelling.

One of the few things that does distinguish this story from those two earlier classics is that Cain allows Clay to have an active (and similarly forceful) internal monologue. An example of this can be seen in the quotation precededing these thoughts where Clay tells himself that Sally is clearly planning to be a widow and that he should not be a part of that. It’s a semi-effective technique, allowing for some foreshadowing and highlighting that Clay knows the consequences of his actions, but its effectiveness decreases once the crucial decisions are taken and so it gets used with less frequency.

Sally is a pretty typical Cain femme fatale, knowingly using her sexual appeal to encourage a man to act recklessly on her behalf. Readers should not anticipate really getting to know her beyond the demands of that role however – we get little sense of her likes or interests, nor of any deeper connection between the two. This has bothered me in some of Cain’s previous work but at least in those cases I understood the core reasons for the attraction, either based on the situation or the lovers’ personalities. Here I get why Sally needs Clay, I am much less clear on why he gives in to her.

One of the reasons for that uncertainty is that before the murder takes place we have already seen Clay become interested in another woman, Sally’s mother, creating a rather bizarre triangle. This seems like it may be intended to shock readers but it really just left me baffled about what Clay is wanting and expecting from life. It suddenly takes away his most interesting character trait, his decisiveness, and renders him rather weak and pathetic and makes all three characters harder to relate to.

While I have issues with understanding the reasons characters act as they do in this story, Cain does a splendid job of showing how Clay and Sally plot out the murder and describing the events of that evening. There is plenty of detail to their plan and while there are some parts that feel a little sloppy or poorly conceived, I found that only made that process more credible. The reader will notice that there are plenty of loose ends for an investigation to seize upon, the question is which of these will be important and how they will be connected.

This brings us to the other aspect of the story where Cain does attempt to do something a little bit different – the events leading up to the ending. Though undoubtedly cut from a similar storytelling cloth to his other efforts, Clay’s path to destruction is a little different. It is unfortunate though that in trying to figure out a different path in this middle phase of the novel, the often quite convoluted plotting choices seem to fly in the face of that powerful, direct storytelling that is the author’s hallmark.

This is a shame because I think the core ideas explored in Clay’s downfall are not uninteresting and are arguably the most distinctive feature of this novel. The problem then is not the idea but the way in which those ideas are introduced. I think that there were ways that Cain could have explored those ideas in a more direct and more characteristically Cain-ish way.

As much as I hoped to like The Magician’s Wife, and I did like parts of it, it was this stumbling onto the ending that was its most disappointing feature. The result is a work that lacks Cain’s usual polish, feeling a bit like a stale remix. It isn’t a patch on either of those earlier classic works and I can really only recommend it to Cain completists.

The Verdict: A disappointing rehash of Cain’s earliest classics. Though it starts strong enough, it stumbles onto its ending.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Get Out of Jail Free (It’s A Kind of Magic) category as a Silver Age read.

Five to Try: Railway Mysteries

There are two settings that I identify strongly with the golden age of detective fiction. The first is the country house mystery along the lines of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The idea of a location where everyone gathers to relax or see friends and family turning murderous is one of those ideas that gets used again and again, particularly in contemporary works that seek to evoke that “Agatha Christie-style mystery” feel.

The other setting I associate with this era of crime fiction is, as you have no doubt guessed, the mystery set aboard a train. This is a less common setting but one that I would suggest is much more closely tied to the original golden age period. Yes, people still write works set on trains but in doing so they often trying to evoke or reference one of the most famous mysteries of all time, Murder on the Orient Express (which, as a friend noted on Twitter, will be the next title on my Poirot read-through).

I think there are several reasons that the train as a setting has such appeal to me. The first is that, unlike the plane, it is easy to move around and socialize on a train. The space becomes all the more important to the story as we become obsessed with whose cabin is next to the murder victim’s or who was sat in which seats in the dining car. It is a diagram lover’s dream – all those lovely rectangles, many of them with numbers associated with them. When you consider the possibilities for locked spaces the train offers a staggering variety of options for the crime writer.

Another reason is there is that sense of the space around the train itself. The landscape can really matter and you often have a sense of the train rushing through tunnels or through snowy, mountainous terrain that will almost certainly force the train to stop at some point. A plane or boat is obviously occupying a space but how often is it truly important to the story?

The train could be glamorous, comfortable and practical. It offered a location in which the middle and upper classes mixed, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Little wonder there are so many wonderful mystery stories set aboard them.

In the post below I share five mystery stories I most enjoyed that are set on or around the world of trains. I have tried to avoid the most obvious picks on the basis that they are already known and loved. Rather than trying to offer a ranking of the five stories I consider the best, I have instead attempted to pick five stories that illustrate different ways that this setting has been used in the genre. Okay – I cheat a little and mention a few others along the way… I may very well not mention one of your favorites. If so, I would love you to share the stories you love in the comments below and the reasons you love them.

Photo by Gabriela Palai on

Dread Journey (1945) by Dorothy B. Hughes

The train as an enclosed space

Dorothy B. Hughes’ Dread Journey features a group of characters from the world of Hollywood making a coast-to-coast journey. As a consequence of being in close confinement with each other within a carriage, tensions rise and grievances are aired. It is clear that not everyone who boarded the train will live to disembark at the other end and that one character, an actress who is about to be dropped by her producer, is playing a very dangerous game…

There are multiple aspects of this book that I really responded to. The discussion of the casting process in Hollywood during this era seems horribly familiar while Hughes creates an interesting cast of characters to fill her Pullman carriage.

Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain

The train as the means of death

In spite of what the cover image shown here may suggest, the train in Double Indemnity is perhaps less of a feature than in the other stories I have listed. In fact very little of the book takes place in or around a train yet when it does feature it does so in a very important way. It serves as the means that Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger use to dispose of her husband as part of an insurance scam. Given that this is a noir story however do not expect all to go well for the couple.

I think it is easy to forget that a train itself was an enormously powerful object that could, with some careful planning, be used as a means to kill. After all it does have a habit of hiding other injuries that the victim may have sustained. For an example of that idea take a look at E. and M.A. Radfords’ excellent inverted detective novel The Heel of Achilles.

Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing (1935)

The sudden entry into a tunnel providing the opportunity for murder

Todd Downing’s Vultures in the Sky takes place on a train travelling across the border between the United States and Mexico. After US customs service agent Hugh Rennert learns of a strange threatening conversation between passengers on the train he is alert to the possibility of trouble.

During the journey the train passes through a tunnel and the lights do not turn on, throwing the carriage into darkness. When the train emerges on the other side the man who had issued the threat lies dead but with no signs of violence it is not even certain if he has been murdered. Soon however further killings will clarify that matter.

Downing is an excellent descriptive writer, able to make you feel what it is like to be on that train – particularly later in the book where it becomes stranded in the middle of the desert. It is not only a thrilling read, it is an excellent puzzle mystery which I thoroughly recommend.

For those interested in another take on this theme, check out Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel from the British Library Crime Classics series.

Great Black Kanba (1944) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

An accident on board a train leading to trouble…

Great Black Kanba reminds us that travelers could often be meeting someone for the first time.

We meet the main character of this story after she has been injured in a baggage accident, causing her to lose her memory of who she is and where she is travelling to. Fellow passengers tell her who she is based on some items found in what is presumed to be her baggage and she sets out to complete the journey she is told she is on, hoping that her memory comes back as she does so.

Another novella that mixes an accident on a train, albeit a much more serious one, with questions about identity is Cornell Woolrich’s wonderful I Married a Dead Man. In that story an unmarried woman who is eight months pregnant gets in an accident and is mistaken for a pregnant woman who was traveling to meet her in laws for the first time. It is a truly great slice of noir fiction.

Death of a Train (1946) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Not all trains are passenger trains

Of course I had to include something by Freeman Wills Crofts who is a particularly appropriate choice for this topic given his own background as a railroad engineer prior to becoming an author. He uses trains as elements in several of his books and while train timetables are not as vital to Crofts’ storytelling as some would have you believe, he certainly had a strong appreciation for the railroad and he does sometimes get rather technical.

Death of a Train takes place during the Second World War and involves a secret plan to transport important supplies without them falling into enemy hands. A special train is laid on but when an attempt to seize it is foiled only by chance it becomes clear that there must be a leak somewhere in the War Cabinet. It falls to Inspector French to try and seek out the guilty party.

This is not the most interesting of Crofts’ railroad mysteries but I selected it as a reminder that not every train carried passengers and that while goods trains may not be as glamorous, they could still offer intriguing possibilities for storytelling.

So there you have my five suggestions for Golden Age detective and mystery novels that feature trains. What are some of your favorite stories to feature trains? Feel free to break away from the Golden Age and include more recent titles!

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Originally published in 2018

They meet at a local tavern in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. Polly is set on heading west. Adam says he’s also passing through. Yet she stays and he stays—drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him. Over the course of a punishing summer, Polly and Adam abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. Still, each holds something back from the other—dangerous, even lethal, secrets.

Then someone dies. Was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away—or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them?

Something—or someone—has to give.

Which one will it be?

There is a pivotal sequence quite early in Sunburn in which one of the main characters cooks the perfect grilled cheese sandwich for the other. It is striking because it marks the moment at which the two characters really begin to actively engage with each other and also because it does not involve exotic or expensive ingredients – it is a sandwich that uses familiar ingredients but it is elevated by the choices that chef makes in how each familiar ingredient is incorporated.

Lippman similarly draws on some very familiar ingredients in constructing Sunburn. The couple with secret agendas meeting in a diner after drifting into each others’ paths is straight out of the James M. Cain playbook, something Lippman clearly acknowledges at several points. Lippman’s originality and genius comes in the form of refining each of those familiar elements, respecting Cain’s achievements but then delivering something that feels even richer and deeper, particularly with regards the exploration of the mindset of her female protagonist Polly.

Polly, who also goes by the name Pauline, has arrived in the sleepy town of Belleville, Delaware after leaving her husband and young child during a short break at the beach. This is not an impulsive act but rather a carefully thought-out plan. Upon arriving she talks a local restaurant owner into taking her on as a waitress and she starts to befriend another new arrival in town, Adam.

We soon learn that Adam is not all he seems and that he knows more about Polly than she realizes. The chapters in the first half of the book alternate between these two characters’ perspectives, exploring the events that brought them to Belleville and the connection the pair form. Both have agendas and recognize that they are keeping secrets from each other but there is a powerful attraction between the two that causes each character to give up some of their control and brings them closer and closer to each other.

The brilliance in the situation Lippman creates is that she establishes a relationship between the two built upon a foundation of lies and using one another but the characters are themselves aware of this to at least some extent. This means that both characters will second guess each other, never being entirely sure if they are being played themselves. This generates enormous tension at points, particularly in the later half of the novel in which an apparently accidental death is being investigated. At the same time, the attraction between the pair feels quite evident, making it seem all the more compelling. The only question is to what extent each is being sincere in pursuing that relationship.

As compelling as this situation is however, the novel would not work were it not for the thoughtful and at times ambiguous characterizations of Adam and Polly. Although we are privy to many of their thoughts, we are not told everything about their backgrounds and previous decisions. As such we are only able to perceive events with the lens of what we know in that moment and the reader may well find their attitudes and judgments towards Polly in particular shift throughout the book as we gain more information and build up a broader picture of that character and their life.

Prior to reading this book I had heard about it from some people I know who read it for a book club and several expressed the opinion that Polly is an unlikeable character. While I do not share that experience, I can understand why some will find Polly a difficult character to love or like. For one thing, the choice she makes at the start of the novel to abandon her young daughter seems to go against most people’s understanding of maternal feelings ought to be and so may read as somewhat abhorrent behavior. And yet when you follow her actions it soon becomes clear that she cares deeply about what happens to that child and that the decision is not as simple and selfish as it initially appears. But just when you feel warmer, a new element is introduced that prompts you to doubt your reading of Polly all over again.

Personally I found this characterization to be both thoughtful and realistic, often reflecting the deep and troubling complexities of human behavior, and I was soon rooting for her to fix her life and find some semblance of happiness with Adam (even if, given this is written in a noir style, that seemed impossible).

Adam is also quite a complex character, though in his case the complexities come in the form of some moral compromises and dishonesty in the way he has approached Polly. There are times at which I felt he was exercising careful and thoughtful judgment and yet I could not escape the idea that he may sometimes be seeing what he wanted to see to justify the choices he was making.

Lippman’s depiction of life in a small and quiet town is done well and I think her story acknowledges some of the challenges involved with drifting into the type of place where everyone knows each other and their business. While there is not a huge cast of supporting characters, the ones that are provided seem distinct and dimensional, adding to the sense of place and also time (the book is, after all, a period piece set in the mid-90s). The one exception would be a character who appears in flashback sequences but while that characterization is entirely presented solely from one perspective, I think that was probably necessary to clearly establish their role in the story and to clarify how the reader should feel about them and their actions.

While the first half sets up the circumstances that bring these two characters together and into each other’s arms, the second deals with the fallout from a death. It is this second half, rather than the story trappings themselves, that most remind me of Cain’s work. In particular, I found myself reflecting on an idea he often returns to in his work, that a crime can threaten to undo a relationship by introducing suspicion and mistrust of each other, particularly when they are forced to rely upon one another. That brewing mistrust is one of my favorite parts of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity and Lippman proves just as good at credibly creating, sustaining and exploring those tensions. Adam and Polly are easily a match for, say, Frank and Cora.

If there is a disappointment, it comes for me in the final couple of chapters of the book. Now, I think thematically the story is wrapped up pretty perfectly and I liked that there is a moment of tension in that conclusion. Unfortunately I do not love that a key moment is not shown directly to us. While I could understand why the decision was reached to try and build up that sense of tension, it does mean that a key aspect of the story feels somewhat unresolved. Then again, other aspects of that conclusion feel thoughtful and powerful, seeming entirely earned and the final few pages in particular feel pretty gripping.

The Verdict: Played in the key of James M. Cain, Sunburn is a powerful and clever work in its own right with striking characterizations and a great premise.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

Originally published 1934

An amoral young tramp. A beautiful, sullen woman with an inconvenient husband. A problem that has only one grisly solution–a solution that only creates other problems that no one can ever solve.

First published in 1934 and banned in Boston for its explosive mixture of violence and eroticism, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic of the roman noir. It established James M. Cain as a major novelist with an unsparing vision of America’s bleak underside, and was acknowledged by Albert Camus as the model for The Stranger.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an important and widely celebrated novel within the mystery and crime fiction genre. It is a fixture on many best novel lists including the CWA, MWA and Modern Library top hundred lists. It has been adapted a number of times, including the celebrated 1946 movie adaptation, and proved hugely influential in its ideas and imagery, inspiring other works like Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread and Camus’ The Stranger.

It begins when a drifter named Frank Chambers visits a diner and is offered a job by the proprietor, Nick Papadakis. Frank is not usually one to stick around and work a paycheck but he feels an intense attraction to the man’s much younger wife, Cora, and after deciding to stay a while, the two initiate an affair.

The pair eventually develop a scheme by which they intend to kill Nick, making it appear to be an accident. Things however do not run smoothly and soon Frank and Cora find themselves under police scrutiny…

The first thing that strikes me about this novel is just how confident and direct Cain’s writing is. Even eighty-five years later it still possesses a striking raw quality that perfectly fits the tone of the story and helps to establish the main characters. Few debut novelists find their voice so early and so clearly.

Cain wastes little time in establishing the premise and the relationships between Frank, Cora and Nick, creating a compelling and tense situation. Nick is oblivious to the affair going on behind his back but we quickly learn that Cora is looking for a way out and she sees this new relationship with Frank as her answer, planning to lean on him to help dispose of her husband.

Cora is the archetypal femme fatale, being young, seemingly vulnerable and yet uncompromising with an apparent masochistic streak. There is, of course, a way that Frank and Cora could be together – they could just skip town – but she cannot walk away from the business and the prospect of getting Nick’s money. Frank knows the dangers inherent in what she asks him to do and yet he wants her badly enough that he will put himself at risk, acting almost as if he is under compulsion by ignoring his own concerns.

Knowing that she opts to pursue a more dangerous approach to ridding herself of her husband, it is hard to see Cora as a sympathetic character. We learn a little about her backstory, marrying young and working in the kitchens but Nick is clearly not a tyrant, making him a rather undeserving corpse. Instead her desire to leave him seems rooted in racism and xenophobia because of his Greek background, leaving me with little sympathy for her.

The relationships between Frank, Nick and Cora are wonderfully ambiguous at times. We might wonder, for instance, whether Cora is as mad about Frank as she appears and certainly Frank’s own interest in her waxes and wanes. This is not as a result of some oversight on Cain’s part but rather it is the whole point of the novel as it builds to a moment in which we have to question those feelings and judge for ourselves. That moment struck me as really powerful and while I have my reading of that relationship, I could conceive others coming away with a different impression that could just as easily be supported by the material.

Though the novel is pretty short, Cain packs it with plenty of incident and quite a few surprises. Nothing seems to go smoothly for the pair and there are a few significant problems that set the narrative into new and interesting directions, particularly once lawyers become involved.

Perhaps the weakest element of the novel is that it seems pretty clear where the action will be headed yet I think it would be unfair to blame it for any familiar plot elements. This is a novel that has clearly been emulated many times since being written yet I suspect it would have been a lot more shocking, particularly its ending, at the time.

This seems a pretty pointless quibble when the quality of the story is otherwise so high. I found The Postman Always Rings Twice to be quite an engrossing and striking read. Sometimes when you read a book that is labeled a classic the results are disappointing. Happily my experience here was excellent, being the rare case of a book that meets its reputation. It may not be quite perfect in every regard but the story is strong and powerful while the situations are really engrossing. If you have never read it, I strongly recommend seeking out a copy.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by blunt instrument (How)

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

Originally Published 1943

Walter Huff was an insurance salesman with an unfailing instinct for clients who might be in trouble, and his instinct led him to Phyllis Nirdlinger. Phyllis wanted to buy an accident policy on her husband. Then she wanted her husband to have an accident. Walter wanted Phyllis. To get her, he would arrange the perfect murder and betray everything he had ever lived for.

I cannot really explain how it is that I have not previously written about the works of James M. Cain. He is after all one of the towering figures of American crime fiction and, in particular, of the sort of inverted crime stories that I enjoy so much. I only realized this omission when I recently compiled my Five to Try list of inverted crime novels and determined that I would try to rectify it as soon as possible.

While I may not have reviewed any Cain works here before, Double Indemnity is not my first encounter with his work. I have previously read and enjoyed The Cocktail Waitress and The Postman Rings Twice and I am pretty sure that I have seen at least part of the film adaptation though I didn’t remember much more than the basic premise and certainly not well enough to discuss the changes made.

The story is told from the perspective of Walter Huff, an insurance salesman who calls at Mr. Nirdlinger’s home to try to persuade him to renew their automobile insurance. It turns out that he isn’t home but his wife Phyllis is and they speak for a while about the plan before she asks whether he sells accident insurance. This question surprises Walter as it is a type of insurance usually sold as an add-on during a transaction rather than one picked out by customers though he notes that it is unusual as being the only type of insurance that can be taken out on a third party’s life without their knowledge.

Walter’s suspicion that Phyllis intends to murder her husband are soon proved correct and, unable to resist his attraction to her, he agrees to help. He quickly points out some of the defects in her scheme and the pair come up with a clever plan to contrive a train accident to claim the money. They find however that the insurance company is suspicious of the death and that they are suddenly under investigation…

One of the first things that struck me about Double Indemnity was how short it is. It was a novella, published in parts in Liberty Magazine, and it can easily be finished in a couple of hours. But it’s not just a matter of the page count – this book reads quickly because Cain writes so tightly, drawing us in to a plot that moves quickly and features several significant twists and revelations.

Part of the reason that Cain’s story is able to move so quickly is that his protagonist, Walter, is not a complete innocent at the start of the story. He does not start the story as a killer but he has given thought to how an insurance fraud of this sort could be pulled off meaning when he is presented with the opportunity he does not need to be persuaded that it might work or spend too long devising a plan. This lets Cain get quickly to the action and focus on developing our understanding of his characters and the details of the plan they aim to pull off.

Walter has two motivations for getting involved in this plan. Firstly, he is excited by the idea of pulling off this fraud idea he had thought up long before ever calling on the Nirdlingers. Secondly, he is attracted to Phyllis and likes the idea that by carrying out this plan he will win the girl too as she would be free once her husband is dead. These motivations are not exactly unique to this story but I think they are strong enough to make his actions feel credible and I think they also help build our understanding of Walter’s character, his strengths and the flaws that may undo him.

Walter narrates the story so we get to learn what he thinks about the situation he finds himself in as well as the concerns that develop as it goes on. A consequence of this choice however is that Phyllis is a little bit harder to get to know, at least at first, as we only really learn the things about her that Walter is interested in.

This does not mean however that the characters are flat or shallow. By the end of the novella we will have a much clearer picture of who Phyllis, her stepdaughter Lola and Sachetti all are and how they each fit into the story. To Walter some of these developments will come as a surprise but the reader will quickly recognize that a character is presented as a femme fatale and so will hopefully be a little ahead of him.

Some of those revelations are not particularly surprising, though there were a few points that turned out to be much more complex and interesting than I guessed. What makes this memorable is how well Cain introduces each idea and element, integrating them to tell a crisp and powerful story that builds to a dramatic finish. That conclusion is potent and delivered with slick intensity.

As with the buildup to the murder, Cain’s ending does not dwell too much on exploring characters’ emotions or attempt to string things out by having his characters behave with indecision. His characters remain bold and decisive right up to the end, providing us with a powerful conclusion that I felt was an appropriate and memorable resolution to the story.

While Double Indemnity is a short work, Cain’s clear plotting, direct prose and bold characterizations make it a striking, quick read. Cain’s restraint both in terms of his use of detail and in his description of the killing is impressive and I think he does well to boil down some complicated ideas about insurance processes so that the action of his story is easy to follow. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mystery Challenge: Book turned into TV/film/play (Why)