Saturday, 27 September 2014

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. 

This line doesn't offer much except a location. Not a great opening line to what many say is a great novel. However, the rest of the first paragraph is where the hook is.

I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers. It didn’t look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it was spilled up the hill any way they could get it in. You climbed some stone steps to the front door, so I parked the car and went up there. A servant poked her head out.

The 'House of Death' will attract attention and raise lots of questions, even if it sounds a little campy by today's standards.

First thing said comes next:

“Is Mr. Nirdlinger in?”

“I don’t know, sir. Who wants to see him?”

“Mr. Huff.”

“And what’s the business?”


Getting in is the tough part of my job, and you don’t tip what you came for till you get where it counts. “I’m sorry, sir, but they won’t let me ask anybody in unless they say what they want.”

Dialogue establishes the film noir tone of the novel and the toughness of the narrator, so this reveals character and since dialogue comes sooner rather than later, we can surmise that the writing style will be engaging, as the characters can tell their stories without lots of narrative text.

I like how after the hook in the form of House of Death the writer moves onto a scene without answering the question the hook raises. This intensifies the suspense level. Lesser writers try to do the same thing, but they do it by delaying to answer the hook by way of boring back story or setting description. This fails to maintain a hook or hold attention. If people keep reading, it is only because they either have nothing else better to do, or are hooked by the byline, or have already paid and have no choice but to continue in the hope they aren't getting ripped off. If a writer wishes to delay the hook to create suspense and tension the best way to delay is like in this novel, by introducing a scene that has its own conflict and suspense that reveals characters we can start caring about.

Verdict: Pass

Theodore Moracht

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