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At just 115 pages, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is noir distilled down to its darkest, deepest reduction. The story, originally serialized in 1936 and published as a novel in 1943, strikes the template for the genre: the hard narrator who is actually a softie deep down; the woman in trouble with whom he falls in love, only to discover too late that she was more than she initially seemed; the hard light and lost souls that flood 20th century Los Angeles; and the broken heart of a man who, by the time he commits a crime isn’t sure why, or whether he even wants to get away with it. Much of the noir tradition is built on the archetypes and plot devices—including the classic, hard-boiled, big twist we won’t spoil here—that Cain establishes in this book. There are echoes of Kierkegaard, Nietzche, and Dostoevsky in his austere prose, and in the way his narrator questions the purpose of existence while succumbing almost blasely to his worst impulses. In 1944, Double Indemnity was adapted into a film with a script co-written by Raymond Chandler, and later garnered seven Academy Award nominations. —Elijah Wolfson

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