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James M. Cain: ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ and ‘Double Indemnity’

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 15, 2017
Category: Fiction

No mystery is simpler than one penned by James M. Cain. The elements of his best books are easily understandable: an unhappily married woman, a susceptible single man, a primal crime, and one very determined investigator. But there’s another reason for Cain’s reputation as a writer of classic thrillers — he’s the cleanest storyteller in American fiction. A metaphor is a rare event in his writing. It’s subject verb object, again and again. All he does is tell the story.

When you don’t pump in a ton of description and digression, books can be short. Cain’s first novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” published in 1934, fills 116 pages. His next novel, “Double Indemnity,” published a year later, required only 115. (He did write a longer novel, Mildred Pierce.)

Publishers don’t like short fiction, but readers have no problem with brevity. “Postman” was the first American novel to shoot the moon in every category. Hardcover bestseller. Paperback bestseller. Magazine excerpts. Play. Movie. Also: banned in Boston. Also: a stylistic influence on Albert Camus.

Here’s how “Postman” starts:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tijuana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Just down that road is a job in a roadside gas station and restaurant. The owner is a goodhearted but boorish Greek. His wife? Another story. So it’s not long before it’s like this…

“Rip me! Rip me!”
I ripped her. I shoved my hand in her blouse and jerked. She was wide open, from her throat to her belly.

Cain moves swiftly from the suburbs of murder to the event itself. And then the aftermath. As I say, brisk. [To buy the paperback of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

“Double Indemnity” is about insurance fraud. Zzzz. Yes, but when someone who is heavily insured dies in an accident — and the policy covers every possible eventuality — the insurance company has to double the payment. How often does that happen? Rarely. And when it does…

But here’s Walter Huff, veteran insurance agent, dropping in on a client and finding only his wife at home:

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?”

He not only does, he has thought about fraud. Not for him, of course. But…

I know all their tricks, I lie awake nights thinking up tricks, so I’ll be ready for them when they come at me. And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet.

It’s a dangerous idea. When an insurance company gets a claim for double indemnity, it’s… skeptical.

When a man takes out an insurance policy, an insurance policy that’s worth $50,000 if he’s killed in a railroad accident, and then three months later he is killed in a railroad accident, it’s not on the up-and-up. It can’t be. If the train got wrecked it might be, but even then it would be a mighty suspicious coincidence. A mighty suspicious accident. No, it’s not on the up-and-up. But it’s not suicide.

The crime is a work of art. The cover-up is something else. And as you know, it’s in the cover-up where things go wrong. [To buy the paperback of “Double Indemnity” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

It was often said of Cain that he was “the 20-minute egg of hard-boiled fiction.” In this way of reading him, his art was in his unflinching willingness to rip the skin off relationships and show you the evil at their core. Cain disagreed: “I don’t know what they’re talking about — ‘tough,’ ‘hard-boiled.’ I tried to write as people talk.”

And then he added the line that gives me a shiver: “I write love stories.”