Double Indemnity and the Lost Art of Noir Fiction

Noir fiction is a lost art, and maybe for good reason. The genre is rife with misogyny, sexism, and toxic masculinity, traits that don’t fare well in modern culture. But every era is just a capsule that shows how its people were raised, what they valued, and what they envisioned for the future. While we can read noir fiction with a bad taste in our mouths, we can also read it with detached curiosity about the time capsule in which it’s contained. In doing so, we inevitably find a genre rich with sharp storytelling, witty dialogue, and crafty characters.

Double Indemnity

The novel Double Indemnity is no exception. Written in 1943 by American novelist James M. Cain, it inverts the typical salty and wise-cracking detective story into one of an anti-hero. This is the story of the criminal himself, insurance salesman Walter Huff.

Huff is hardworking, all-American, laser-focused, and keen to ferret out shady deals to protect the firm he works for. When he drops by the Nirdlinger residence to remind the elusive Mr. Nirdlinger to renew his automobile insurance policy, he meets the volumptuous femme fatale Phyllis, the dissatisfied wife of Mr. Nirdlinger. Phyllis discusses insurance with Huff, feigning ignorance of the whole process, but when she starts fishing for information about accident coverage, Huff grows suspicious. He knows immediately that Phyllis wants accident insurance to pull a fast one on Mr. Nirdlinger, and he wants no part of it. That is, until later that night when he starts stewing over the idea. What if he devised a perfect scheme to collect an accident insurance claim? After all, Huff knows every angle of the insurance business, and it’s something he’s thought about more than once. 

Romance, premeditated murder, and a faked train accident

Thus begins a taut narrative of romance, premeditated murder, a faked train accident, and a suspicious insurance agency that will find any reason not to pay out the claim. Huff plays it cool, but as his boss, Keyes, begins to piece together the evidence, the tension begins to crack the relationship between Huff and Phyllis. Huff drifts away out of self-preservation, but he begins to form a close bond with Nirdlinger’s daughter from a previous marriage, who confesses that she thinks her stepmother, Phyllis, killed her father. Huff tries to talk her down, until he learns a shocking truth about Phyllis, one that will lead him to do the unthinkable.

While readers might be quick to dub Phyllis an archetypal spider-woman, who lures Huff into the twisted web of her plot, it is Huff who masterminds the murder and orchestrates it. Still, it’s difficult to see Walter Huff as a real criminal. Cain sketches his character with enough human complexity that he emerges as a near hero by the end of the book, leaving Phyllis behind as the twisted villain. But we can’t quite forgive Huff for committing murder, and neither can Cain. In the end, Huff’s and Phyllis’s mutual culpability drags them to a surprising ending.

Say what you will about the noir fiction genre of the early 20th century, but many of these stories were ahead of their time. Their exploration of sexuality and hard crime were deemed appalling by readers of the era, though these themes feel tame by modern standards. Still, the grip these stories have on the history of crime fiction and thrillers is undeniable, and they provide a history lesson that will keep you up reading late into the night. 


Guest Post courtesy of Ryan Doskocil

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