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

Book Review

The Lady of Sing Sing by Idanna Pucci

Genre: Historical Biography
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Summary

The Lady of Sing Sing is a poignant retelling of the first woman in America sentenced to the death penalty and the women worldwide who came to her aid. In 1895, Maria was accused of killing a man who seduced and falsely promised to marry her. Her case lit New York City on fire, even attracting the attention of an American Countess in Italy, Cora Slocomb.

Cora works tirelessly on Maria’s case, seeing her as another poor Italian immigrant being treated unfairly by the American courts. Idanna Pucci, Cora’s great-granddaughter, expertly weaves together the struggles of immigrants, capital punishment, prejudice, violence against women, women’s autonomy, and the power struggles between those in power and women and ethnic minorities. She blends intimate characterizations with broader political machinations to tell a nuanced story of the trials of Maria Barbella.

Thoughts

What I most enjoyed about this book is how the author seamlessly blended fiction with history. It is impeccably researched, yet extremely engaging. As most students of history like myself can attest, that balance is incredibly difficult to achieve and many history texts end up bland and dense. These two characteristics are the opposite of The Lady of Sing Sing, which draws the reader in from the first chapter. I loved the intimate view of the historical figures and how well Pucci captured what their inner lives might be like during such difficult times.

The content of this book is also increasingly relevant today. The death penalty is still unfairly and disproportionately inflicted on minorities, and America is still obsessed with capital punishment. It is easier to reflect on these aspects of American culture when looking at them through the lens of the past. This book offers the chance for that reflection because of its personal characterization of the struggles and unfairness associated with the death penalty. I was shocked as I read about the ineptitude of Maria’s first trial and how the judge’s racist attitudes influenced his decisions, but I was filled with hope by the thousands of people who tried to help Maria. These ideas are not as foreign as they seem and it is interesting to see how the historical legacy of ideas on the death penalty have translated into our modern perspectives. 

Overall, it was a good read and I definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in history, social justice, or who just wants to read something engaging and different. Also, don’t forget to read the Afterword!


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

5 Books that Marked Changing Times

History is a rolling saga of love and war, and we are irrevocably changed by both. Generations of great writers have documented the change of times and the novelties they brought with them, and so I’ve decided to give you a few books that have truly marked the end of an era.


Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind fondly remembers the last golden days of the South antebellum, before the Civil War wrenched families apart and changed the landscape of American society.

Scarlett O’Hara, a blooming southern belle, and Rhett Butler, an outrageous pragmatist, fall in and out of love in this classic as they struggle with the pain of losing loved ones, drastically altered social positions and wartime hardships.


Mother is the most popular work of Maxim Gorky. Based on real-life events that Gorky was personally connected to, this novel is about the spiritual awakening of a young factory worker and his careworn mother in Tsarist Russia.

Pavel Vlasov starts out by taking after his hard-drinking father, but soon meets a group of revolutionaries and begins to get an education in politics and philosophy. He stops drinking and undergoes a quiet transformation into a sharp, receptive young man.

This incites curiosity in Pelageya Nilovna, Pavel’s mother. After a lifetime of abuse and poverty, she overcomes her illiteracy and political ignorance to become a revolutionary. It is because of this display of willpower and strength of character, Nilovna Vlasova, not Pavel, is considered by many to be the true protagonist of the novel.


In one of the greatest love stories to emerge from World War I, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is set against the background of the Italian front, where Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver, falls in love with Catherine Barkley, a British nurse’s aide.

The stark reality of war brings real affection out of the playful simulation of love that the two initially engage in.

Frederic and Catherine are symbolic of the countless men and women who were kept apart by social and geographical boundaries in those uncertain times. This classic is about the illusion of glory in war and the courage to bid it farewell.


One cannot think of World War I without remembering the concurrent movement of the suffragettes, which spanned decades before and after the war.

My Own Story is the autobiography of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Ghostwritten by Rheta Childe Dorr, it is a detailed memoir of Pankhurst’s work as an activist and the long road to electoral equality between British men and women.


The Diary of a Young Girl is a compilation of the diary entries of a pre-adolescent Jewish girl in Germany, forced into hiding with her family by the onset of the Holocaust.

Anne Frank kept a thorough record of the two years she spent in the Secret Annex, the mortification of growing up among near-strangers with various quirks, the lack of privacy and, of course, the uncertainty of life itself.

This piece of literature is remarkable for its unaffected style of prose and the sheer truthfulness and poignancy of the emotions portrayed on the pages. Anne Frank is a literary icon, immortalized through her work as an unwitting historian.


Book Review

Relief by Execution by Gint Aras

Publisher: Little Bound Books, 8 October 2019
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 94
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Beginning with an illustration of the “deep connection to the dead” felt from the European cobblestone streets, Gint Aras begins his story when he is just about to visit the Concentration Camp Memorial nearest to his former Lithuanian home for the first time, announcing his intention to imagine himself not as a victim but as a perpetrator. Switching to past tense, Aras describes formative moments and impressions in his life, from a childhood in the violent West Chicago suburb Cicero in a physically abusive Lithuanian immigrant family to his time in Europe and then back in America.

Aras charts his progression from one who silently accepts and ignores abuse to one who identifies and confronts this behavior, whether it be the Lithuanian complicity in Nazi atrocities towards Jews during WWII to more broad racism, Anti-Semitism, and physical violence. He then ends the memoir back with his visit to Mauthausen in present tense recognizing a “relief by execution” for both prisoner and guard.

Thoughts

The tense and section changes in Aras’ work were somewhat disorienting for me personally, but his easy, conversational style immediately made me feel as involved in his realizations as he was. Though I have not suffered PTSD or uncovered a family and national history of abuse and atrocity, reading Relief by Execution allowed me to experience the emotions and sensations of these moments along with Aras.

In my admittedly brief experience, I too “sense a deep connection to the dead any time I stand on cobblestones in Europe” (1). Aras’ narrative provides a clear individual perspective on how the aftermath of WWII still affects thought patterns today, suggesting that we may not have left those atrocities as far in the past as we may wish to believe.

Since Aras provides such a personal and approachable take on the complicated conceptions of ethnic identity, race, nationality, and abuse, I would recommend Relief by Execution to anyone (high school age or older) who seeks to understand how our individual identities are affected by our cultural and familial baggage.


Thanks to the publicist at The Next Best Book Blog for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Translated by Tiina Nunnally

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 296
Format: Paperback
Series: Minnesota Trilogy
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

The first of Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, The Land of Dreams takes place along Minnesota’s northern shore of Lake Superior. When local policeman and genealogist Lance Hansen encounters a brutal murder of a Norwegian tourist, Georg Loftus, the surrounding towns are equally horrified and in awe—as they believe it to be the first murder ever recorded on the North Shore.

However, as Hansen begins to unearth more about the North Shore’s past, he begins to wonder if it is in fact the first murder. Regardless, he soon discovers an unbreakable tie that links him to Georg Loftus’s murder, leaving Lance to question everything he once knew to be moral—and more importantly, how the ties of loyalty shape his morality.

Thoughts

As luck would have it, I came upon this book while wandering through an old used-bookstore along the North Shore of Minnesota. Having lived in Duluth for almost two years, and in that time explored much of the North Shore, I had the privilege of knowing exactly where Sundstøl set his story—right down to the beloved pizza shop in Grand Marais called “Sven and Ole’s.”

For me, it was so fun and very special to be able to read a book and be able to follow along with the characters so acutely, bringing my own personal experiences with the Shore into the reading.

I thought Sundstøl did an exceptional job of capturing the spirit of small North Shore towns like Grand Marais, Grand Portage, and Tofte. But that is just the beginning of his wonderful work. I thoroughly enjoyed the story Sundstøl wove. Complicated as it was, I never once found myself confused or muddled in the stories or characters. It made to be a riveting read, and I cannot wait to pick up the second book in the trilogy.

Sundstøl lived on the North Shore, so he is very knowledgeable of the area, and, at times, his book can feel a bit academic. His ability to explain the history is incredible and interesting. That being said, there were a few paragraphs I simply scanned because I wanted to move on with the story. Send me off to literary jail!

Nevertheless, the history Sundstøl provides is not only interesting, but very important to the story, and I am so grateful he included it in the work. I only suggest that readers have a bit of patience when it comes to a dense part in the novel, as the outcome is extremely worth it.

Due to some graphic descriptions and delicate subject matter, I would suggest this book be read at a high school level or above.

If you’re looking for a great mystery that will also teach you more about one of America’s most beautiful regions, I cannot recommend Vidar Sundstøl’s The Land of Dreams highly enough.