Double Indemnity (novel)

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Double Indemnity
Cover of the first separate edition (Avon Books)
AuthorJames M. Cain
CountryUnited States
GenreCrime novel, Noir, psychological thriller
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)

Double Indemnity is a 1943 crime novel by American journalist-turned-novelist James M. Cain. It was first published in serial form in Liberty magazine in 1936 and later republished as one of "three long short tales" in the collection Three of a Kind.[1] The novel later served as the basis for the film of the same name in 1944, adapted for the screen by the novelist Raymond Chandler and directed by Billy Wilder.

Plot summary[edit]

Walter Huff, an insurance agent, falls for the married Phyllis Nirdlinger, who consults him about accident insurance for her unsuspecting husband. In spite of his instinctual decency, and intrigued by the challenge of committing the perfect murder, Walter is seduced into helping the femme fatale kill her husband for the insurance money. After killing him in the Nirdlinger car, they stage an accident from the rear platform of a train. But they cannot enjoy their success. The crime backfires on them, and soon afterwards, with the insurance company's claim manager Barton Keyes becoming more and more suspicious of them, he decides to kill her, too "for what she knew about me, and because the world isn't big enough for two people once they've got something like that on each other".[2] With her own distrust mounting, Phyllis also decides to kill her accomplice. One night, he tries to ambush her, but she forestalls him and shoots at him, instead. He survives, though, and the end sees both of them on a steamship heading to Mexico: Keyes has given them an ostensible chance to escape formal justice by booking their passages - without them knowing about the other. With "nothing ahead of" them (Cain, p. 113), they finally decide to jump off the ship and commit suicide.


The novel was made into a film in 1944. Double Indemnity was directed by Billy Wilder (Raymond Chandler collaborated on the screenplay) and starred Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson.[3] In the adaptation, Wilder and Chandler changed the names of the main characters: Walter Huff became Walter Neff, and Phyllis Nirdlinger became Phyllis Dietrichson.[4]

The film was remade in 1973 as a television film starring Richard Crenna. This credits for this version state that it is based on the original novel by James S. Cain as well as the screenplay for the 1944 film by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

A stage adaptation by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, directed by Kurt Beattie, opened at ACT Theatre in Seattle on October 27, 2011.[5] The same production moved to the San Jose Repertory Theatre and opened on January 18, 2012.


Cain based the novella on a 1927 murder perpetrated by a married woman in Queens, New York, and her lover, whose trial he attended while working as a journalist in New York.[6] In that crime, Ruth Snyder persuaded her boyfriend, Judd Gray, to kill her husband, Albert, after having him take out a big insurance policy with a double indemnity clause.[7] The murderers were quickly identified, arrested and convicted. The front page photo of Snyder's execution in the electric chair at Sing Sing has been called the most famous news photo of the 1920s.[8]

Apart from the Snyder case of 1927, "Cain's basic pattern strikingly resembles the one in Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867).[9] Here, too, an unhappily married woman instigates a man to kill her husband. Soon afterward, both start watching each other furtively with ever-growing fear of mutual betrayal. Finally, they also develop plans to kill each other: "Du matin au soir, ils s'espionnaient' [...] 'Un tel etat de guerre ne pouvait durer davantage. [...] Il fallait absolument que l'un de deux disparût pour que l'autre goûtât quelque repos" (Zola, pp. 177f.) Terrified by each other, and together with the black epiphany that going on living would be unbearable, they are led to a joint suicide using the poisoned drink the husband has prepared for his wife".[10] So, all day long they were spying on each other, and since a state of war like this could not last they both came to the conclusion that one of them had to die to give the other some rest. And just like in the actual Snyder case, the modus operandi is poisoned wine.


  1. ^ "Books: Dingy Storyteller". Time. 24 May 1943. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
  2. ^ James M. Cain (1992). Double Indemnity First Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition 1992, ISBN 0-679-72322-6, p. 86.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Irwin, John T. (2006). Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them: Hard-boiled Fiction and Film Noir, p. 242. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  5. ^ ACT Theatre production history Archived 2014-06-28 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  6. ^ "Shadows of Suspense". Double Indemnity Universal Legacy Series DVD. Universal Studios. 2006.
  7. ^ While the story certainly used the Snyder case as a framework, it lacked an important ingredient of the Double Indemnity structure: the "inside-guy accomplice" to the murder—the Walter Huff character. Cain later recalled this key innovation stemmed from a conversation he had years earlier with reporter Arthur Krock about Krock's days at the Louisville Courier-Journal. An ad for ladies' underwear was typeset to read: IF THESE SIZES ARE TOO BIG, TAKE A TUCK IN THEM. But when the paper hit the street, the T in tuck had been changed to an F. A furious Krock reset the ad for the next edition and demanded an explanation on how it happened. After two days of bullying the printer, the man finally confessed, "you do nothing your whole life but watch for something like that happening, so as to head it off, and then, Mr. Krock, you catch yourself watching for chances to do it". Cain also recalled another conversation he had with insurance men in Los Angeles while verifying facts for Postman. Said one, "[People] think this stuff all comes from the police. That’s wrong. All the big crime mysteries in this country are locked up in insurance company files, and the writer that gets wise to that... is going to make himself rich." And thus was born Neff, who jumped the tracks after fifteen years playing it straight in the insurance business. Armed now with a sense of his hero-gone-wrong, Cain sat down to begin writing the story in 1934. Hoopes (1982), Cain.
  8. ^ Gallo, Bill (2005). "When 'Dem Bums' Were Kings." New York Daily News, October 4, 2005.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Jaemmrich, Armin:The American Noir - A Rehabilitation, ISBN 978-1523664405, p.244