by James M Cain.
Foreword by James Lee Burke.
Orion Books 2005 (1936).
The final words we’re left with in this classic thriller gives us the image of Earth’s satellite. As a metaphor it is particularly apt: the lunar body is two-faced, always presenting the same side to us, and Cain’s novella deliberately gives us a one-sided account of what is happening.
But what we’re told, however dark it is, is not as dark as the side we don’t see. The narrator thinks he has all the facts, holds all the cards, is the prime mover in what transpires, and we go along with that. But the far side of the moon has its own secrets; and when at one point its disc seems to rise in the west over the Pacific Ocean we are alerted to the fact that not all is as it seems.
In the US insurance companies sometimes provide double indemnity, in other words they may pay double the face value of an insurance policy in certain circumstances such as when accidental death can be proved. Double indemnity is what the main protagonists are counting on when they plan the perfect murder; but will their plot be bedevilled by two-timing and double-cross?
OIL MAN, ON WAY TO JUNE RALLY, DIES IN TRAIN FALL
Walter Huff, who narrates, is an insurance agent for the Californian firm Golden Fidelity. Generally very capable and reliable he however becomes infatuated with a certain Mrs Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of a successful businessman. When she enquires about taking out a clandestine life insurance policy for her husband he proposes what he sees as the perfect murder so they can claim the payout. Their conspiracy will eventually lead a headline in a Los Angeles paper announcing Mr Nirdlinger’s apparent accidental death, but will the lovers be cock-a-hoop? It appears that, in their case, the course of a perfect murder as well as love never runs smooth.
James Cain, as the introduction reminds us, was a “master craftsman” in terms of crisp dialogue, complex yet ordinary characters, and intricate plotting. While our focus is on Walter and Phyllis as they execute their crime (with the emphasis on ‘execute’) complications loom with suspicious bosses and colleagues, plus the presence of Phyllis’s stepdaughter and boyfriend with their own motivations.
Having a murderer as protagonist narrate is a big risk, but I think Cain carries it off. As with Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ridley we root for Walter Huff despite our distaste at his cold-bloodedness, and we harbour deep suspicions about the potential widow who has taken his fancy. Cain’s snappy narration, with its meticulous detailing of times and places, has that dramatic quality which explains how, with its virtual ready-made script, it practically demanded being adaptated for screen and stage, almost distracting from the pair’s innate immorality. The largely monochrome descriptions add to the noir feel, with just a red dress or crimson lipstick occasionally providing a stark colour contrast.
Cain was inspired by a real-life court case to write this novella. Yet in some ways this novel is more like ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, the play within a play from Hamlet, with Walter and Phyllis the equivalents of Claudius and Gertrude; but Walter also comes across as the Prince himself, suspecting his erstwhile co-conspirator playing him for the dupe like an Ophelia. Either way things won’t be turning out well for the pair if we remember what eventually happened to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern in the play.
James Lee Burke’s introduction draws attention to the likely motivations behind Walter’s decisions to act the way he did: Cain’s characters, he suggests, “believed with the fervor of religious converts that failure to achieve the American Dream, in matters of both money and the heart, was a form of secular sin.” It’s a credo, we can see, that still persists nearly a century on, however some choose to achieve it. Others might say that such a belief is utter moonshine.
Read for Readers Imbibing Peril XVI