Double Indemnity Summary

James M. Cain

Double Indemnity

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Double Indemnity Summary

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Double Indemnity is a 1934 detective novella by James M Cain. It was originally published as part of a set with two other stories, called Three of a Kind, in Liberty Magazine. Cain is considered to be one of the founders of the “hard-boiled” genre of detective fiction, which developed during the Prohibition Era in the United States (1920-1933). Hard-boiled novels are usually narrated by the detective, who has become disillusioned by the violence, crime, and corruption of the justice system. The most recognized characters of the genre are Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, and the Continental Op. Cain is also a pioneer of “roman noir,” which shares many elements with hard-boiled novels and the cinematic noir. The main distinguishing feature of roman noir is the pervading sense of fear and paranoia experienced by the protagonist, who is usually a victim, suspect, or perpetrator of the crime. Generally the protagonist is either forced into crime, or in turn the victim of a corrupt legal system as well. Insurance salesman Walter Huff is the narrator of Double Indemnity.

The title, Double Indemnity, is taken from a type of insurance claim which pays out double the original premium should the policy-holder die in an accident. The story is set in the early days of Hollywood, just as the town is experiencing an economic boom. Cain was familiar with the setting, having worked in Hollywood for a number of years writing screenplays for films. As the novella begins, Huff is making a routine call when he remembers that there is another potential client living nearby. He decides to stop at the home of Mr. Nirdlinger to try to get him to renew his auto insurance, but when he arrives, the man is not home. He persuades the maid to let him in anyway and ends up speaking with Phyllis Nirdlinger, his wife, instead. Huff notices immediately that Phyllis is attractive, but also that she has a worn out look about her. She engages him in conversation, though it is clear to Walter that she is stalling for some reason when she begins to question him about accident insurance. On a second visit to the Nirdlinger home, Phyllis questions Huff about taking out an insurance policy for her husband without his knowledge. Immediately, Huff realizes this conversation can only lead to danger and briefly considers leaving. Instead, he kisses Phyllis, and the two of them begin concocting a plan to kill Phyllis’ husband in order to get the $50,000 insurance pay out.

Using every trick in the book, Walter convinces Nirdlinger to sign up for the life insurance policy and suggests that he should keep this policy a secret from his family, though Nirdlinger disagrees with him on the last point. Phyllis and her stepdaughter, Lola, act as witnesses, though Lola’s presence makes Walter uncomfortable given what they are plotting to do to her father. Walter and Phyllis carry on with the plan. They decide to make it appear as if Nirdlinger dies by falling out of a moving train and meticulously plan the charade. Walter plans every detail of his own alibi so he cannot possibly be implicated in the crime while Phyllis kills her husband. She drives the body to the train station where she meets Walter who is disguised as her husband. Having decided it will all appear more authentic if Nirdlinger appears to be very much alive on the train, Walter allows himself to be noticed (but not too closely) by the employees and other passengers. A few minutes after the train has left the station, Walter jumps off at a pre-determined meeting place where Phyllis meets him to dump the real body.

The next day, news of Nirdlinger’s death has spread, and Walter’s insurance company has begun its investigation into the accident. Phyllis files to collect the insurance payment, but the company refuses just as Walter predicted they would. Phyllis hires a lawyer to petition the company in court and continuously seeks out Walter’s guidance on what to expect and how to act. One day, Lola appears in his office, claiming that something does not seem right about her father’s death. She tells Walter that her mother died of pneumonia in a winter cabin and that Phyllis was her mother’s nurse.  She becomes convinced that Phyllis killed her mother in order to marry her father, and then killed her father to get to his money, and plans to make a scene in court to try to trap Phyllis. By this time, Walter has fallen in love with Lola, and comes to the conclusion he must kill Phyllis rather than let Lola find out what really happened to her father. He plans to meet Phyllis in a park, but she has also betrayed him and tries to have him killed instead.

Having barely survived a gunshot wound, Walter wakes up in the hospital with his boss standing over him. He confesses the crime and makes a deal to send a signed confession from South America so they can arrest and charge Phyllis. However, he runs into Phyllis aboard the ship that is supposed to take him to South America. She tells him that Lola has married her boyfriend, and they both realize that they have nothing. Realizing they will probably both be arrested, they decide to jump overboard together and commit suicide.