If you want to understand our current financial woes, skip the economists and go directly to the premiere analyst of the Great Depression, James M. Cain. His 1943 novel Double Indemnity (originally a 1936 serial that ran in Liberty) explains far better than spreadsheets the moral origins of our present financial misadventure.
Cain once remarked that he wanted to register America as she was, rather than as she should be. To that end, he portrayed the nation in the 30’s and 40’s as a land of little people ruled by predatory capitalists and their bought politicians. He was especially interested in how this arrangement affected the souls of these little people. In Cain’s world, the little guy more often than not possesses a soul parched by cynicism. He’s concluded that happiness can only be obtained by imitating his overseers’ cold-blooded determination to capitalize on the weakness of others.
Double Indemnity is about one such little man, Walter Huff, an insurance agent who sells what he calls “stuff” to the unsuspecting. Huff, as his name implies, is the salesman as the big bad wolf. He comes to blow your door down with a line of gab that promises great rewards for just a little money down. “To move this stuff,” he explains as breezily as any pre-2008 investment banker, “you’ve got to get in. Once you’re in they’ve got to listen to you.”
True, Huff’s “stuff” may not come in the form of unsustainable mortgage contracts and credit-default swaps. His policies, however, do bear this resemblance to such dubious investments: They are, from Huff’s point of view, primarily instruments designed to line his pockets. In attitude, at least, he’s much like the brokers who sold promises that wound up bankrupting their customers.
When Huff meets Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his marks, his game becomes considerably more ruthless. When she asks him with seeming innocence about accident insurance, he knows he’s no longer dealing with the usual stuff. “Accident insurance,” he explains, “is sold, not bought. You get calls for other kinds, for fire, for burglary, even for life, but never for accident. That stuff moves when agents move it.” A manipulator himself, Huff spots Phyllis’s purpose instantly. She wants to cash in her husband for his insurance value. “There’s many a man walking around today,” Huff coolly observes, “that’s worth more to his loved ones dead than alive, only he don’t know it yet.”
Cain sets up his murder plot with an economy that’s quite comical. Amusing also are the pains Huff takes to justify his decision to throw in with Phyllis:
You think I’m nuts? All right, maybe I am. But you spend fifteen years in the business I’m in, maybe you’ll go nuts yourself. You think it’s a business, don’t you, just like your business, and maybe a little better than that, because it’s the friend of the widow, the orphan, and the needy in time of trouble? It’s not. It’s the biggest gambling wheel in the world. . . . You bet that your house will burn down, they bet it won’t, that’s all. What fools you is that you didn’t want your house to burn down when you made the bet, and so you forget it’s a bet. That don’t fool them. To them a bet is a bet, and a hedge bet don’t look any different than any other bet.
Huff has decided he won’t be fooled any longer. He’s learned what’s what from the best: the financial wizards of the 20’s who made it their practice not to regard people as people but rather as commodities to be cashed in whenever they needed some extra dough. He’s ready to do the same.
Cain cleverly, if somewhat unfairly, used the insurance industry to stand for capitalism. In his hands, insurance becomes a business that coldly reduces human lives to dollar values and, on principle, suspects its clients when they file claims. Murder is the first thing Huff’s bosses think when Phyllis reports her husband’s fatal “accident.” Their only evidence is that they insured the man for $50,000. They’re right, of course, but this doesn’t make their rush to judgment any less cold-blooded.
Cain portrays capitalism as an economic juggernaut designed to squeeze profits from the risks little people are encouraged to run. A simplistic interpretation, to be sure, but not wholly implausible given the financial community’s recurring escapades.
Once Huff has his rationale in place—he’s just following the lead of his betters—he engineers the killing so that it will look as if Phyllis’s husband had an accident. Cain got his inspiration from tabloid accounts of various murders, especially one involving lovers who killed the woman’s husband for insurance money. What Cain did with this material reveals his transformative powers. He made what began as tabloid sensationalism an essential retelling of sin’s origin. He managed this with the novel’s vibrant skein of allusion.
Cain draws on several classic texts in the course of his novel, one quite openly when he has Huff compare Phyllis to “what came aboard the ship to shoot dice for souls in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” (Can you imagine a popular writer today assuming his audience would be familiar with this poem?) Phyllis does indeed resemble Coleridge’s figure of Life-in-Death. She’s a woman who by the novel’s end is discovered to have killed ten people, always for their money or property. Another allusion interests me more, however. It’s unannounced but unmistakable. Cain draws upon Milton’s marvelous allegory of Sin in Paradise Lost to bring his theme into full resolution.
In his retelling of Lucifer’s fall from heaven, Milton had followed the myth in which Zeus gave birth to Athena. When Milton’s angel of light first conceived himself to be God’s equal, he was so overcome with his own audacity that he fainted. During his swoon, his head opened, allowing an exquisitely beautiful woman to step out. Upon awakening, Lucifer was so smitten that he immediately embraced this beauty. In heaven’s accelerated time, she soon gave birth to a formless monster. The woman was named Sin; her offspring, Death. Sin, Milton implies, begins in our heads. Then, should we allow it to step forth for fuller inspection, we often find it too irresistible not to embrace. In doing so, we bring death, figuratively and literally, into the world.
Here’s how Cain reworks this allegory. When Huff explains why he has committed murder, he uses a casino analogy. As an insurance salesman he’s functioning as a croupier overseeing the bets on a roulette wheel. Professional duty demands he be cynical about these bets or risk having his company cheated. The company knows, he explains, that some clients are “out to crook that wheel.” Part of Huff’s job is to spot these cheats. He must watch for
every crooked trick there is. . . . Then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet. . . . When I met Phyllis I met my plant.
As Sin had approached Lucifer, so Phyllis has been approaching Huff long before she shows up in the flesh. She incarnates his own seductive idea. Like Lucifer, Huff can’t keep his hands off what springs from his head. Call it the fundamental narcissism of sin.
Huff arranges the husband’s murder so that it will seem he fell off the back of a train. First, he breaks the fellow’s neck. Next, he takes his place aboard a sleeper car and then walks to the rear observation deck. Shortly after the train leaves the station, he jumps from the deck and walks to a prearranged location to meet Phyllis, who’s supposed to bring the body to lay on the tracks—only she’s not there. Crouching in the road bed, he stares into the darkness of a moonless night. “I heard footsteps,” he reports.
They would go fast for a second or two, and then stop. It was like being in a nightmare, with something queer coming after me, and I didn’t know what it was, but it was horrible. Then I saw it. It was her. . . . She had [her husband] on her back . . . staggering along with him, over the tracks. . . . They looked like something in a horror picture.
A few hours before, this was the woman he couldn’t resist. Now she’s a hideous monster scrabbling over a wasteland of cinder ballast. At last, Huff sees Phyllis without the filter of desire. She is indeed a monster, his monster. She had sprung from his scheming mind, and he had embraced her. Now he wants nothing to do with this horror. This passage would not have the impact it does had Cain not been the writer he was. Notice especially how he has multiplied the it’s. “I didn’t know what it was, but it was horrible. Then I saw it. It was her.” At first, it conveys something unknown, but as the sentences progress and “it” comes closer, Huff discovers that this “it” is one term of a tautology: “It was her.” Phyllis is no longer a woman but an it. Like Milton’s Sin, she’s a thing that has given birth to a fatal formlessness, which threatens to engulf him.
This allegory can be read in various ways. It’s certainly a representation of sin in general, but it can also be given a current application. It serves as an apt illustration of all those would-be Huffs on Wall Street who pushed their stuff over the past two decades and more. These were the boys who came up with big ideas—their irresistible Phyllises, if you will. Mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit-default swaps—the plants with which they could crook the wheel. How could they resist embracing them? Did these well-dressed gentle folk ever pause to consider the harm they might be doing? I doubt it. Unlike Cain’s Huff, they weren’t plotting to do something forthrightly brutal like breaking a man’s neck. No. They were working ever so indirectly in the elegant offices of Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and Lehman Brothers under the direction of well-fed, honey-tongued CEOs—Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein, for instance, who swore before Congress that, while tens of millions were suffering economic ruin fostered by his policies, he himself had been tucked away in his office “doing God’s work.” Such are sinners in our time. Unlike Huff, they lack the conviction of their ruthlessness. They seem unable or unwilling to confront themselves in the mirror of their own conceits.
Cain, following Milton, has Huff’s sin stare back at him in the person of Phyllis. Once he embraces her, he finds himself married to her destructive nature. In the novel’s closing pages, he’s on a tramp steamer sailing into tropical waters, courtesy of his former employers, who, unknown to Huff, have booked passage for Phyllis also. They want the couple well out of sight. Were they put on display in a long and lurid murder trial, the company’s sales would surely suffer. Insurance agents cashing in their own clients? This is insider trading too egregious to be missed by the general public. When the murderers unexpectedly meet on deck, Phyllis suggests they might as well marry. So we last see Huff sailing south, his sin at his elbow. The narrative’s very last words are “The moon.” He’s on a ghastly honeymoon, having been indissolubly wed to the last person he wants to be with, Phyllis, the very embodiment of his sin.
As fitting as this ending is, it’s only fiction, after all. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t seem likely to mete such sublime justice to the Huffs of our investment industry. Nature really should try harder to imitate art.
[Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain (New York: Vintage Books) 115 pp., $13.00]