The Origins of Double Indemnity: A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion

If you don’t know about the real-life 1927 case that inspired James M. Cain to write Double Indemnity (and The Postman Always Rings Twice, for that matter), pick up A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen (Simon and Schuster, 2011).  In fact, whether you know everything or nothing about the real-life case, this book makes for essential reading. In a nutshell, married lovers (married, that is, to other people) Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray killed Snyder’s husband, Albert – leading the way for Ruth to profit from a $45,000 double indemnity insurance policy she’d taken out on her husband without his knowledge. Hansen offers a fictionalized account of the relationship between the players involved, but the novel is interwoven throughout with facts from the lurid case and its aftermath.

The book lassoes your attention from the opening paragraph, which starts several hours after the murder of Albert Snyder (who was bludgeoned with a sash weight, strangled with picture wire, and suffocated by chloroform-soaked cotton stuffed in his nose) – as the novel begins, a trussed-up Ruth Snyder is trying to awaken her nine-year-old daughter by drumming her head on the girl’s bedroom door. Before long, the police have been called, detectives arrive on the scene, gaping holes are found in Ruth’s tale of a burglary by a “giant Italian thief,” and Ruth is hauled down to the station house where she promptly spills her guts. This, fittingly, opens the way for a flashback that last nearly the entire length of the novel, detailing Ruth’s life with her husband (whom she called “The Old Crab”), her chance encounter with traveling corset salesman Judd Gray, their ensuing two-year affair, and the circumstances that led to Albert’s death.

Hansen immerses the reader in the world of the mid- to late-1920s, seamlessly mingling his fictional narrative with popular culture of the 1920s, including the effects of Prohibition, and such mentions as Rubenstein lipstick and Mavis talcum powder, George White’s Scandals, author Anita Loos, the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, the Palmer Method of Handwriting, and many others. The sensation of being transported to a different era is heightened by the imagery Hansen creates:  a woman is depicted with “coffee-colored hair combed over to the left like a surge of ocean, and . . . a form-describing silk dress that hinted it could slither off.” The day that Ruth meets Judd illustrates “the fierce sun at noon, the torrid heat shimmering off the streets of Manhattan, the horns of jockeying Model T taxicabs, and the shrill whistles of white-gloved police directing the traffic on Madison Avenue.” Hansen’s prose makes you want to grab a flask and get your iced tea up on its feet.

The real-life case was the inspiration for Double Indemnity.

As a lover of the film Double Indemnity, I enjoyed identifying the similarities and differences between the product created by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder and the real-life events of the case. In the book, for instance, we learn that obtaining Albert’s signature on the double indemnity policy was spearheaded by Ruth, and she was aided by a crooked insurance agent (who, incidentally, was fired after the entire story came out). Also, while Double Indemnity’s Walter Neff was single, and neither he nor Phyllis Dietrichson had children, in reality both Ruth and Judd were married and each had a young daughter. And unlike the climax of Double Indemnity, Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray were tried, found guilty, and died in the electric chair.

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (the title of which was taken from an editorial in the New York Daily Mirror by Cornelius Vanderbilt III) is extensively researched, including accounts from numerous newspaper articles of the case, transcripts from the actual trial, a memoir penned by Judd Gray, and a serialized piece by Ruth Snyder (entitled My Own True Story – So Help Me God!). Along with Hansen’s fiction, these historical touches serve to complement and illuminate the thoughts, motivations, and actions of the principal players, making them come alive. The novel is an ideal accompaniment for viewing Double Indemnity, as well as a must-read for film noir lovers, true crime enthusiasts, and anyone who desires a trip to the past to find out what really made the 1920s roar.

(Note: This review originally appeared in the November/December 2011 “giant” issue of The Dark Pages newsletter. For information on how to purchase this special issue, click here. For information on subscribing to The Dark Pages, or to request a free electronic sample copy, click here.)

~ by shadowsandsatin on January 11, 2012.

4 Responses to “The Origins of Double Indemnity: A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion”

  1. Another interesting post from one of my favorite websites. Clarification query, though: Were both of Cain’s stories inspired by Ruth and Judd’s crime?

    • Hi, Greta! Thank you! : ) And, yes — when I was doing my research for our Double Indemnity Dark Pages issue, I was interested to learn that the murder of Ruth’s husband by Ruth and Judd first inspired James Cain to write The Postman Always Rings Twice. He later drew even more on the case (including the insurance aspect, etc.) when he penned Double Indemnity.

  2. Thanks for such an interesting post on this famous case. Cain must have been really fascinated with it to write two novels about it – how do his books compare with Hansen’s, I wonder?

    I know of the Ruth Snyder case for its famous photograph taken by a reporter at the moment when Snyder was in the electric chair and the switch was thrown; it was the cover photo on the NY Daily News the next day. Oddly enough, that incident of the reporter and his hidden camera (he strapped it to his ankle to sneak it in, since photos at an execution are not allowed) was the basis of another film, ‘Picture Snatcher,’ with James Cagney, which recreated the incident.

  3. I missed a Double Indemnity issue? Dammit, I’ll have to see if I can get one.

    Good article; I’m not sure if I’d pick up this book if its fictionalized, but it definitely piqued my curiosity.

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