Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, is a story about murder, love, and money. It was published in 1943 as a short story in the book, Three of a Kind. Because of its popularity, in 1944 Billy Wilder directed the film which was based off the book. I took an interest in specifically researching the topic of Double Indemnity’s critical receptions. Through this process, I found that critical reception is an incredibly important aspect in a novel’s success. It not only reflects James M. Cain as a writer, but reflects the time and interest of the public during the 1940s.
While researching Double Indemnity, I found it quite difficult locating a lot of information about the story other than the plot summary. I found it even more challenging finding reviews from the 1940s that I could use as useful forms of critical reception. After Google and database researching, I had accumulated very little information, by myself. With some help from our trusty UMW librarian, Peter Catlin, I was pointed to several different locations to obtain research. He first listed two websites that provided in being very helpful. He listed several other books that the library didn’t have, but could be requested on inter-library loan. Lastly, he suggested I take a look at the microfilms available in the library. I found these to be incredibly helpful.
Prior to the experience I gained with Double Indemnity research, I had never seen nor heard of microfilm. Microfilm is defined as micro-photographs of newspapers or magazines. Because I was utterly ignorant as to how to operate microfilm, and what it was, I called upon the reference librarians. Through painstaking trouble, they finally found the films I was looking for, and set up the machine with the film in it. I soon realized that microfilm contains years of newspaper prints, and for a while I scrolled through the months until I found the date and article name Peter Catlin had suggested. What I found interesting about the newspapers from 1943 was the drastic contrast between newspapers then and newspapers today. While scrolling through, a large amount of the print was covered in ads from that time. Beautiful women smoking cigarettes, and countless models wearing the newest clothing styles, covered the pages. These women accompanied all the microfilms I viewed, and I was fascinated by them.
After collecting all the research I had found, I finally began to it format it into a legible story.
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity was positively reviewed by critics after it was first published. According to John K Hutchens who reviewed of Three of a Kind in the New York Times, says Cain’s, “men and women are the most highly combustible characters in modern fiction, an aspect of his story-telling that would be a little ridiculous in a lesser craftsman…it is one device in the general scheme of a writer who holds you by the sheer, dazzling pace he sets.” Hutchens later says, “One reader, for instance, does not for a moment believe that the …cagey insurance man in “Double Indemnity”, having taken one look at the figure of a latter-day Lucrezia Borgia, is ready at once to attempt murder for her. But you do not think of this at the time, because you are too busy wondering what will happen next. If this is not necessarily the sign of an artist it is the certain mark of a first-rate storyteller, and surely Mr. Cain is precisely that.” In May of 1943, Time published an article reviewing Three of a Kind. The review said, “All three stories have the rancid air of authenticity which Cain obtains by screwing down his competent microscope on a drop of that social seepage which discharges daily into U.S. tabloids and criminal courts. And as in any drop of ditch water, the action in Cain’s tales is of infusorial violence.” The review goes on to say, “The Embezzler and Double Indemnity are stern moral warnings that it is easier to embezzle money than to put it back, to murder husbands than to collect their accident insurance. Both tales are also remarkable examples of the art with which Cain makes unfamiliar readers feel at home in such worlds as banking and insurance, the skill with which he uses business routines to build suspense.” Cain continued to get raving critical receptions from the trio of short stories composed in Three of a Kind, and in particular Double Indemnity. Dawn Powell, a writer for The Nation, wrote in her review published in May 1943, that, “The best story-and the best Cain has done for a long time-is Double Indemnity…” While some reviewers today look back at Double Indemnity and Cain in a critical manor, Hutchens put reality in perspective. “For, when Mr. Cain’s faults have all been pointed out-and the principal one that the character doesn’t matter much in his writing-the pertinent fact remains: when he is at the top of his form it is all but impossible to put down the story he is telling.”
After reading through all the reviews I could find, I found that several noted an interesting beginning to Three of a Kind. While it does not necessarily pertain to the critical reception of Double Indemnity or Three of a Kind, I found it note worthy that several reviewers had mentioned the unusual preface of the book. John K. Hutchens says of Cain, “Just as surely, he is no mere sensationalist.” In an uncommonly interesting preface to this book he declares that he is “probably the most misread, misreviewed and misunderstood novelist now writing,” and goes on to say that he makes “no conscious effort to be tough or hard-boiled or grim.” He contradicts this disavowal a bit later with an admission that such was his “morbid fear of boring a reader” that he “certainly got the habit of needling a story at the least hint of a let down.” A review from The New Yorker, says, “Mr. Cain’s preface intimates that from now on he will abandon such intense tales” in favor of a broader kind of writing.” From both quotes, it seems as though Cain was quite concerned with the reception of his stories. He did not want to be stereotyped as the typical ‘hard-boiled writer’, or in any way categorized. Ironically, his stories, including Double Indemnity, are often referred to as the epitome of noir and hard-boiled fiction, something he utterly opposed. Although, when Cain says that he feared boring a reader, he must have known what the reader at the time in 40s wanted. From the late 1930s to the late 1940s the public was engrossed by the idea of the noir novel. Cain, therefore was feeding the public what he knew would entertain them. Whether Cain accepted it or not, he was writing in his time for the people of his time. And, when it’s all said and done, a good novel is a good novel, and Cain exemplifies this notion with Double Indemnity.
Dingy Storyteller. Time [serial online]. May 24, 1943;41(21):102. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 6, 2012.
By, J. K. (1943, Apr 18). A cain three-decker. New York Times (1923-Current File). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/106673745?accountid=12299
Powell, Dawn. “Mr. Cain’s Art.” The Nation 22 May 1943: n. pag. Web.