"I had seen so many houses burned down, so many cars wrecked, so many corpses with blue holes in their temples, so many awful things that people had pulled to crook the wheel, that that stuff didn't seem real to me any more. If you don't understand that, go to Monte Carlo or some other place were there's a big casino, sit at a table, and watched the face of the man that spins the little ivory ball. After you've watched it a while, ask yourself how much he would care if you went out and plugged yourself in the head. His eyes might drop when he heard the shot, but it wouldn't be from worry whether you lived or died. It would be to make sure you didn't leave a bet on the table, that he would have to cash for your estate." In Cain's noir masterpiece, insurance salesman Walter Huff collaborates with Phyllis Nirdlinger to murder her husband and collect the accident insurance taken out on him. Because railroad accidents pay twice as much (the "double indemnity" of the title), they murder the husband elsewhere and then make it appear that he falls from the back of train. In Cain's novel, the reduction of persons to statistics plays as great a role as passion in the murder that occurs (see the statistical detachment in the passage quoted above). Huff advises Phyllis to avoid any method of murder that might seem probable, and by breaking the husband's neck before dropping him off the slow-moving train, Huff is able to make the husband's death seem an improbable accident. And in order to keep the appearance of normality, Huff closely manages his sales activities in the months following the murder so that there will be no significant statistical changes in his monthly sales totals. With the actuary-as-criminal, ethical relations with others are replaced by statistical calculations of risk (this is the kind of modern crime that a critic like Mark Seltzer goes to town with).
Less obvious to the plot is the role of the corporation and finance capital. The police are almost completely absent from the novel, being replaced by the insurance corporation investigator Keyes, who embodies statistical logic. Keyes suspects murder because although it is statistically improbable that the fall from the back of the train was suicide (no case of this exists on record) it is almost equally improbable that the husband died on the railway so shortly after the purchase of double indemnity accident insurance. Yet Keyes' statistical reasoning is partially thwarted by the insurance corporation's executive, who is afraid of harming the corporation's reputation by accusing an innocent woman of murder (and even here it is not a question of ethical reputation but of being able to keep the stockholders happy by keeping business strong). Instead of actively pursuing the case as Keyes suggests, the executive takes the passive route of simply not paying the claim until challenged with a lawsuit. The insurance industry historically had to work against its bad reputation as a dubious enterprise (appearing as either a con or a gamble on death) and has long been heavily regulated by the government. The novel reflects a tension between the corporation's need to create a public image of being a good neighbor and the purely statistical calculations that make up its core activities. The corporation also has a motive not to investigate the crime because Huff's reasoning so clearly extracts the industry's a-moral statistical core, the fact that insurance may be the most "modern" of all industries. It is also important to note that Huff has a "little finance company" of his own that he runs on the side of his insurance job. Though he claims his finance company "didn't have anything to do with the insurance company," it also works through the calculation of risk as well as the substitution of an unknown future for one structured through debt. It is the finance company that gives him access to the car he hopes to use to frame a second murder late in the novel. Given the current crisis, it's worth remembering that insurance companies can be a major source of finance capital by investing the premiums they receive, and that one of the greatest concerns with the housing market crash is that the companies that insured the finance companies may also go under. It might not be a stretch to read Cain's novel as using murder to explore a certain over-confidence in and over-extension of insurance and finance.