Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

by James M. Cain


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James M. Cain, virtuoso of the roman noir, gives us a tautly narrated and excruciatingly suspenseful story in Double Indemnity, an X-ray view of guilt, of duplicity, and of the kind of obsessive, loveless love that devastates everything it touches. 

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679723226
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/1989
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 187,275
Product dimensions: 5.19(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.36(d)

About the Author

James Mallahan Cain (1892-1977) was a first-rate writer of American hard-boiled crime fiction. Born in Baltimore, the son of the president of Washington College, Cain began his career as a reporter, serving in the American Expeditionary Force in World War I and writing for The Cross of Lorraine, the newspaper of the 79th Division. He returned from the war to embark on a literay career that included a professorship at St. John’s College in Annapolis and a stint at The New Yorker as managing editor before he went to Hollywood as a script writer. Cain’s famous first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934 when he was forty-two, and became an instant sensation. It was tried for obscenity in Boston and was said by Albert Camus to have inspired his own book, The Stranger. The infamous novel was staged in 1936, and filmed in 1946 and 1981. The story of a young hobo who has an affair with a married woman and plots with her to murder her husband and collect his insurance, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a benchmark of classic crime fiction and film noir. Two of Cain’s other novels, Mildred Pierce (1941) and Double Indemnity (1943), were also made into film noir classics. In 1974, James M. Cain was awarded the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Cain published eighteen books in all and was working on his autobiography at the time of his death.

Read an Excerpt

Double Indemnity


I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you've been reading about in the papers. It didn't look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it was spilled up the hill any way they could get it in. You climbed some stone steps to the front door, so I parked the car and went up there. A servant poked her head out. "Is Mr. Nirdlinger in?"

"I don't know, sir. Who wants to see him?"

"Mr. Huff."

"And what's the business?"


Getting in is the tough part of my job, and you don't tip what you came for till you get where it counts. "I'm sorry, sir, but they won't let me ask anybody in unless they say what they want."

It was one of those spots you get in. If I said some more about "personal" I would be making a mystery of it, and that's bad. If I said what I really wanted, I would be laying myself open for what every insurance agent dreads, that she would come back and say, "Not in." If I said I'd wait, I would be making myself look small, and that never helped a sale yet. To move this stuff, you've got to get in. Once you're in, they've got to listen to you, and you can pretty near rate an agent by how quick he gets to the family sofa, with his hat on one side of him and his dope sheets on the other.

"I see. I told Mr. Nirdlinger I would drop in, but-never mind. I'll see if I can make it some other time."

It was true, in a way. On this automobile stuff, you always make it a point that you'll give a reminder on renewal, but I hadn't seen him for a year. I made it sound like an old friend, though, and an old friend that wasn't any too pleased at the welcome he got. It worked. She got a worried look on her face. "Well-come in, please."

If I had used that juice trying to keep out, that might have got me somewhere.

I pitched my hat on the sofa. They've made a lot of that living room, especially those "blood-red drapes." All I saw was a living room like every other living room in California, maybe a little more expensive than some, but nothing that any department store wouldn't deliver on one truck, lay out in the morning, and have the credit O.K. ready the same afternoon. The furniture was Spanish, the kind that looks pretty and sits stiff. The rug was one of those 12 x 15's that would have been Mexican except it was made in Oakland, California. The blood-red drapes were there, but they didn't mean anything. All these Spanish houses have red velvet drapes that run on iron spears, and generally some red velvet wall tapestries to go with them. This was right out of the same can, with a coat-of-arms tapestry over the fireplace and a castle tapestry over the sofa. The other two sides of the room were windows and the entrance to the hall.


A woman was standing there. I had never seen her before. She was maybe thirty-one or -two, with a sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair. She was small, and had on a suit of blue house pajamas. She had a washed-out look.

"I wanted to see Mr. Nirdlinger."

"Mr. Nirdlinger isn't in just now, but I am Mrs. Nirdlinger. Is there something I could do?"

There was nothing to do but spill it. "Why no, I think not, Mrs. Nirdlinger, thanks just the same. Huff is my name, Walter Huff, of the General Fidelity of California. Mr. Nirdlinger's automobile coverage runs out in a week or two, and I promised to give him a reminder on it, so I thought I'd drop by. But I certainly didn't mean to bother you about it."


"Insurance, I just took a chance, coming up here in the daytime, but I happened to be in the neighborhood, so I thought it wouldn't hurt. When do you think would be a good time to see Mr. Nirdlinger? Could he give me a few minutes right after dinner, do you think, so I wouldn't cut into his evening?"

"What kind of insurance has he been carrying? I ought to know, but I don't keep track."

"I guess none of us keep track until something happens. Just the usual line. Collision, fire, and theft, and public liability."

"Oh yes, of course."

"It's only a routine matter, but he ought to attend to it in time, so he'll be protected."

"It really isn't up to me, but I know he's been thinking about the Automobile Club. Their insurance, I mean."

"Is he a member?"

"No, he's not. He's always intended to join, but somehow he's never got around to it. But the club representative was here, and he mentioned insurance."

"You can't do better than the Automobile Club. They're prompt, liberal in their view of claims, and courteous straight down the line. I've not got a word to say against them."

That's one thing you learn. Never knock the other guy's stuff.

"And then it's cheaper."

"For members."

"I thought only members could get it."

"What I mean is this. If a man's going to join the Automobile Club anyway, for service in time of trouble, taking care of tickets, things like that, then if he takes their insurance too, he gets it cheaper. He certainly does. But if he's going to join the club just to get the insurance, by the time he adds that $16 membership fee to the premium rate, he's paying more. Figure that in, I can still save Mr. Nirdlinger quite a little money."

She talked along, and there was nothing I could do but go along with it. But you sell as many people as I do, you don't go by what they say. You feel it, how the deal is going. And after a while I knew this woman didn't care anything about the Automobile Club. Maybe the husband did, but she didn't. There was something else, and this was nothing but a stall. I figured it would be some kind of a proposition to split the commission, maybe so she could get a ten-spot out of it without the husband knowing. There's plenty of that going on. And I was just wondering what I would say to her. A reputable agent don't get mixed up in stuff like that, but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn't noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn't exactly know.

But all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair. "Do you handle accident insurance?"

Maybe that don't mean to you what it meant to me. Well, in the first place, accident insurance is sold, not bought. You get calls for other kinds, for fire, for burglary, even for life, but never for accident. That stuff moves when agents move it, and it sounds funny to be asked about it. In the second place, when there's dirty work going on, accident is the first thing they think of. Dollar for dollar paid down, there's a bigger face coverage on accident than any other kind. And it's the one kind of insurance that can be taken out without the insured knowing a thing about it. No physical examination for accident. On that, all they want is the money, and there's many a man walking around today that's worth more to his loved ones dead than alive, only he don't know it yet.

"We handle all kinds of insurance."

She switched back to the Automobile Club, and I tried to keep my eyes off her, and couldn't. Then she sat down. "Would you like me to talk to Mr. Nirdlinger about this, Mr. Huff?"

Why would she talk to him about his insurance, instead of letting me do it? "That would be fine, Mrs. Nirdlinger."

"It would save time."

"Time's important. He ought to attend to this at once."

But then she crossed me up. "After he and I have talked it over, then you can see him. Could you make it tomorrow night? Say seven-thirty? We'll be through dinner by then."

"Tomorrow night will be fine."

"I'll expect you."

I got in the car bawling myself out for being a fool just because a woman had given me one sidelong look. When I got back to the office I found Keyes had been looking for me. Keyes is head of the Claim Department, and the most tiresome man to do business with in the whole world. You can't even say today is Tuesday without he has to look on the calendar, and then check if it's this year's calendar or last year's calendar, and then find out what company printed the calendar, and then find out if their calendar checks with the World Almanac calendar. That amount of useless work you'd think would keep down his weight, but it don't. He gets fatter every year, and more peevish, and he's always in some kind of a feud with other departments of the company, and does nothing but sit with his collar open, and sweat, and quarrel, and argue, until your head begins spinning around just to be in the same room with him. But he's a wolf on a phony claim.

When I got in there he got up and began to roar. It was a truck policy I had written about six months before, and the fellow had burned his truck up and tried to collect. I cut in on him pretty quick.

"What are you beefing to me for? I remember that case. And I distinctly remember that I clipped a memo to that application when I sent it through that I thought that fellow ought to be thoroughly investigated before we accepted the risk. I didn't like his looks, and I won't-"

"Walter, I'm not beefing to you. I know you said he ought to be investigated. I've got your memo right here on my desk. That's what I wanted to tell you. If other departments of this company would show half the sense that you show-"


That would be like Keyes, that even when he wanted to say something nice to you, he had to make you sore first.

"And get this, Walter. Even after they issued the policy, in plain disregard of the warning on your memo, and even with that warning still looking them in the face, day before yesterday when the truck burned-they'd have paid that claim if I hadn't sent a towcar up there this afternoon, pulled the truck out, and found a pile of shavings under the engine, that proved it up on him that he started the fire himself."

"Have you got him?"

"Oh, he confessed. He's taking a plea tomorrow morning, and that ends it. But my point is, that if you, just by looking at that man, could have your suspicions, why couldn't they-! Oh well, what's the use? I just wanted you to know it. I'm sending a memo to Norton about it. I think the whole thing is something the president of this company might very well look into. Though if you ask me, if the president of this company had more . . ."

He stopped and I didn't jog him. Keyes was one of the holdovers from the time of Old Man Norton, the founder of the company, and he didn't think much of young Norton, that took over the job when his father died. The way he told it, young Norton never did anything right, and the whole place was always worried for fear he'd pull them in on the feud. If young Norton was the man we had to do business with, then he was the man we had to do business with, and there was no sense letting Keyes get us in dutch with him. I gave Keyes' crack a dead pan. I didn't even know what he was talking about.

When I got back to my office, Nettie, my secretary, was just leaving. "Good night, Mr. Huff."

"Good night, Nettie."

"Oh-I put a memo on your desk, about a Mrs. Nirdlinger. She called, about ten minutes ago, and said it would be inconvenient for you to call tomorrow night about that renewal. She said she'd let you know when to come."

"Oh, thanks."

She went, and I stood there, looking down at the memo. It crossed my mind what kind of warning I was going to clip to that application, if, as, and when I got it.

If any.


Three days later she called and left word I was to come at three-thirty. She let me in herself. She didn't have on the blue pajamas this time. She had on a white sailor suit, with a blouse that pulled tight over her hips, and white shoes and stockings. I wasn't the only one that knew about that shape. She knew about it herself, plenty. We went in the living room, and a tray was on the table. "Belle is off today, and I'm making myself some tea. Will you join me?"

"Thank you, no, Mrs. Nirdlinger. I'll only be a minute. That is, if Mr. Nirdlinger has decided to renew. I supposed he had, when you sent for me." Because it came over me that I wasn't surprised that Belle was off, and that she was just making herself some tea. And I meant to get out of there, whether I took the renewals with me or not.

"Oh, have some tea. I like tea. It makes a break in the afternoon."

"You must be English."

"No, native Californian."

"You don't see many of them."

"Most Californians were born in Iowa."

"I was myself."

"Think of that."

The white sailor suit did it. I sat down. "Lemon?"

"No thanks."


"No sugar, just straight."

"No sweet tooth?"

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Double Indemnity 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Aimee_Leon More than 1 year ago
Double Indemnity is a fantastic, crime fiction. The tale center around a clever, savvy insurance saleman Walter Huff, whose only intention from the starts was to renew a client Mr. Nirdlinger's policy Until he met his client's wife Mrs. Phyllis Nirdlinger after that the story plot spins into an intense ride that knocks you socks off. I finished this audio read in one day. It never loses your interest for a second. I would recommend anyone to this book, or listen to the audio book the narrator sounds great in each scene, character & situation. James M. Cain was totally ahead oh his time during the 30's for creating femme fatale,hard boiling crimes considering twisted at that time.
SEAL76 More than 1 year ago
One of the best Noir books I have read in a long time. This book holds up over time. Buy it. Read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Double Indemnity is part of James Cain's classic hard-boiled triumvirate 'Mildred Pierce', 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', and 'Double Indemnity'. Cain was a pioneer of the genre who was shockingly controversial in the 30's. He fits right in today.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
James M. Cain is a powerful noir writer who is often overlooked. For extra fun read this book first then watch the classic movie starring Fred MacMurray. James Cain also wrote several other excellent books--two of which were made into excellent movies--Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings twice.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you enjoy noir, read it. It's that simple. The only drawbacks are that it's very similar to The Postman Always Rings Twice (if that's a drawback), and arguably of lesser quality.
the_terrible_trivium on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Cain does a rewrite of The Postman Always Rings Twice, this time on a train. Maybe only half as good, but that's still a whole heaping lot of good.
bcquinnsmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although this is a small book (128 p.) and a quick read, don't underestimate this little gem. It is perfectly written and packs an unexpected punch at the end. Highly recommended for anyone who likes noir fiction. And don't expect the movie ... Hollywood couldn't have possibly done it the way the author intended. A basic summary of the plot: Walter Huff is an insurance investigator who is able to smell a scam a mile away. But sadly, Walter isn't thinking with his brain when he meets Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of a customer. She wants to know about accident insurance; he knows without anyone even saying anything why she wants it. Walter is convinced that with his knowledge of the industry and how it works come paying out claims time that the two of them could plot the perfect murder and insurance scam. But the story's not over yet. During a period of time when the two have to cool their heels and avoid each other, Walter has time to sit back and think about things and realizes that there's more to the story here and that he must take some action before his company puts two and two together.That's the bare bones outline (I don't want to spoil the story). The book's ending is vastly different than that of the movie -- and I think more poetically just (if not a little strange). Cain's characterizations are well drawn and the writing is superb. A must for any fan of noir.
g026r on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Let's get this out of the way: the movie, by Billy Wilder, of Double Indemnity is a thing of wonder. The book however has all my usual complaints about Cain (primarily dialog-based) plus there's the ending, which is just dreadful. The usual cultural issues of the time are also present, though it's infinitely less offensive than Serenade was.As is, it merely reenforces my opinion that Cain is my least favourite of the classic crime novelists. I'll take Hammet, Chandler or hell, even Thompson over Cain any day of the week.
gbill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A lean, smart thriller about an insurance man who plots the perfect crime for the love of a woman and for a double payoff, ¿double indemnity¿, from his own insurance company. The 1936 novel was not only the basis for the 1944 film noir classic directed by Billy Wilder, but as you read you¿ll see that the characters and plot twists clearly influenced Hollywood suspense movies to the present day. Very enjoyable, and readable in one sitting.Quotes:On insurance:¿It¿s the biggest gambling wheel in the world. It don¿t look like it, but it is, from the way they figure the percentage on the oo to the look on their face when they cash your chips. You bet that your house will burn down, they bet it won¿t, that¿s all. What fools you is that you didn¿t want your house to burn down when you made the bet, and so you forget it¿s a bet. That don¿t fool them. To them a bet is a bet, and a hedge bet don¿t look any different than any other bet. But there comes a time, maybe, when you do want your house to burn down, when the money is worth more than the house. And right there is where the trouble starts. They know there¿s just so many people out there that are out to crook that wheel, and that¿s when they get tough. They¿ve got their spotters out there, they know every crooked trick there is, and if you want to beat them you had better be good.¿On May-December love:¿I thought about Lola, how sweet she was, and the awful thing I had done to her. I began subtracting her age from my age. She was nineteen, I¿m thirty-four. That made a difference of fifteen years. Then I got to thinking that if she was nearly twenty, that would make a difference of only fourteen years. All of a sudden I sat up and turned on the light. I knew what that meant.I was in love with her.¿On love, and crimes of passion:¿I lay there staring into the dark. Every now and then I would have a chill or something and start to tremble. Then that passed and I lay there, like a dope. Then I started to think. I tried not to, but it would creep up on me. I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a finger at me, and I would have to die. I had done all that for her, and I never wanted to see her again as long as I lived. That¿s all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.¿
jhevelin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Short, brilliant gem. It's a taut study in double-cross and murder, but Cain brings a lot of subtlety to the characters, and there's much more here than just a crime story. And I like the glimpses of 1930s Los Angeles.
datrappert on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Short and to the point, well-written. Interestingly, the ending is different from the movie - darker in fact. The movie also changes the main character's last name from Huff to Neff. Apparently Huff was considered a little silly....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Urge you to see movie though still think her blond hair was a mistake remember it will seem dated today
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Terse, spare prose, hopeless complications, moral terpitude, just and satisfying conclusion.
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