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Double Indemnity
2.18.2003 by Julian, every Tuesday.

Double Indemnity hits the ground running and doesn’t slow down. It’s a short book at 115 pages, but it’s not just short—it’s fast.

The book is about the tough, gritty world of insurance sales. Our hero is Walter Huff. He works for General Fidelity of California, and it’s while trying to sell insurance to one Mr. Nirdlinger that he meets Phyllis for the first time. Instantly he’s fondling her breasts and before they’ve spoken a dozen words to one another, they agree to kill her husband and run away with the insurance money.

Walter knows insurance fraud inside and out, and he believes he knows how to get away with both the fraud and the murder:
There’s three essential elements to a successful murder…The first is, help. One person can’t get away with it… The second is, the time, the place, the way, all known in advance—to us, but not to him. The third is, audacity. That’s the one that all amateur murderers forget. They know the first two, sometimes. But that third, only a professional knows.
For some reason Nirdlinger’s life insurance policy pays out double if he dies in a railway accident, so they set it up to look as if he died falling from a train.

They go about the murder very cleverly, and everything appears to go according to plan. But Walter got more than he bargained for when he got himself mixed up in the Nirdlinger family. First there’s Phyllis. She has secrets and a dark past, and sometimes she likes to dress up in a red veil and pretend to be the angel of death. Then there’s her sweet, innocent daughter, Lola, who has a big crush on Walter. On top of that there’s Walter’s colleague, Keyes, who, when it comes to investigating crimes, is more dogged than a bloodhound dressed up as Sherlock Holmes.

Double Indemnity was appreciated by the existentialists in France long before it attained any sort of respectability in America (Albert Camus said that Cain’s first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, inspired his own novel, The Stranger). They called it a “pure novel” because it tells a story in its simplest, most elemental form. Walter’s motivations for committing the murder are simple and human: lust and greed. Like all humans he is also weak and fallible, and this makes us feel sympathy for him, despite his horrible actions.

The novel has a deterministic quality to it. Right from the beginning we know a murder has been committed, and a sense of impending doom is always present. The book barrels along so quickly that the ending seems unavoidable when it comes.

Double Indemnity is worth reading, and won’t take up too much of your time. You’ll never look at insurance salesmen the same way again.

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