Best L.A. Novel Ever: James M. Cain's Double Indemnity vs. Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, Round 1
L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading check out:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Brackets
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
With the right soundstage and set design, Los Angeles can be anywhere. Some say, though -- and I'm inclined to agree -- that the best noir can only be set in Los Angeles. The genre's very defining feature, its blackness, is a retort to Southern California's citrus-scented sunshine. (Mike Davis makes the argument most compellingly in his history of L.A., City of Quartz.)
The first match-up in the "Noir" division of our tournament pits James M. Cain's Double Indemnity against Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice.
Both books borrow their titles from the insurance industry -- "Double Indemnity" refers to rare circumstances in which an insurance policy will pay out twice the amount of its benefits; "Inherent Vice" refers to a defect that precludes, or voids, insurance coverage. Both books are about a man, a woman he wants, and a pile of money -- but that's pretty much where the similarities end.
James M. Cain first related the tale of Walter Huff, an insurance man ensnared in a plot to kill his own client (and collect his benefits) by the man's wife, in serial form in several 1936 issues of a magazine called Liberty. Collected, the episodes constitute a slim volume that contains an outsized amount of suspense -- crossings, double crossings, triple crossings and one ultimate unraveling.
Inherent Vice, released 73 years later, is more of a psychedelic surf romp than a detective novel. Much of the detecting is done by coincidence or with the assistance of ARPAnet, a precursor to the Internet only accessible at the time to a select number of universities, but to which protagonist Doc Sportello's mentor, Fritz, of the repo agency Gotcha! Search and Settlements, implausibly has access. Perpetually-stoned P.I. Sportello is a Lebowski-like character with a perchant for threesomes with the comely "stewardii" (his plural for stewardess) Pynchon imagines running around Venice Beach in 1970. (Disclosure: my mother was a stewardess based out of LAX in 1970. This fact alone may bias me against Pynchon's novel.)
Considered alongside Inherent Vice, Double Indemnity's noir-ness is thrown into stark relief. There's the elegant design of the caper itself, there's the spare prose with which Cain explains it and then there are the characters. The people in Pychon's novel are ornaments on which he hangs silly names and sexy descriptions, but they are overwhelmingly one-dimensional--the women in particular. The women in Cain's novel, by contrast, are the ones with the power and conflict.
Take Double Indemnity's Phyllis Nirdlinger, for instance. Nirdlinger is the textbook example of the femme fatale, a woman with the power to make Huff risk it all for her affection. She tells him at their third meeting, "There's something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I'm so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness..."
Compare Nirdlinger in her scarlet shroud, her face smeared up with white powder and red lipstick, a dagger in her hand (as her step-daughter, Lola, observes her one day) to Inherent Vice's Shasta Fay Hepworth. Hepworth is Doc Sportello's ex-girlfriend, the one who sets him off on his misadventure; in his memory, she is always in "sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe and the Fish T-shirt." Or, consider another of Pynchon's ladies, the wife of Hepworth's disappeared millionaire boyfriend, who "strolled in from poolside wearing black spike-heeled sandals, a headband with a sheer black veil and a black bikini of negligible size made of the same material as the veil." These two women, along with the stewardii, and the bisexual proprietors of the Chick Planet massage parlor -- they are all caricatures, not characters.
Ultimately, the characters are what distinguish these two novels: one is hard-boiled, the other is a carton of fluffy, lighthearted egg substitute.
That is not to say that Pynchon's novel isn't fun -- it is. Fun with names, like Trillium Fortnight, Bigfoot Bjornsen, Leonard Jermaine Loosemeat, and fun with descriptions of food (papaya, marshmallow and pork rind pizza, anyone?), with LSD trips and weed of varying potency... Fun is the thing with which Pynchon is primarily concerned.
It is to say that in this contest -- the contest to proudly represent the noir tradition among L.A.'s best novels -- Double Indemnity drags Inherent Vice down to the basement, ties it to a chair and beats it within an inch of its life.
WINNER: Double Indemnity