What’s chilling about the novel, and a major theme of Cain’s work generally, is that it could happen to anybody. All it takes is the two wrong people to meet each other at the wrong time. It’s realistic in its depiction of the mundanity of crime, shorn of any glamour or romanticism. What’s left is the bleak desperation of individuals caught up in the repercussions of their own actions.
Cain’s prose is earthy and everyday, with few decorative flourishes. He adopts the slightly awkward lexis of spoken English, where turns of phrase aren’t worked on in advance, but given spontaneously, without regard for literary technique. If this sounds like I’m making excuses for a badly written book, it’s quite the opposite. Cain’s style is deliberate, and effective in getting across the character of his protagonist.
While Huff and Nirdlinger are by design ordinary people, the detail with which Cain depicts them makes them believable and interesting, ensuring that the reader will want to follow them through the story. Neither of them are exactly ‘likeable’ per se, but likeability and interest don’t automatically go together. What matters is that they’re compelling, and their motives create good drama, which Cain does effortlessly.
One thing Cain avoids that would kill the story is excessive moralising. He’s presenting these people without judgement, and spins out their actions to their logical conclusion. The reader is left to make their own mind up about them, and what their ultimate fates signify. Often in real life, the reasons people make the decisions they do are multifaceted and complex, and can be sympathetic regardless of their effect. While sympathy isn’t necessarily what Cain is trying to elicit, the lack of judgement adds to the overall realistic feel.
While I enjoyed The Postman Always Rings Twice, I thought Double Indemnity was by far the better novel. Even though I knew the story from the film, I still finished it in a day, wanting to know what happened. Cain does a fantastic job drawing you into the insular, seedy world inhabited by the characters, ratcheting up the tension as the net closes on the co-conspirators. It’s a crime classic, and well worth a read.
Review by Charlie Alcock