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“Bet Your Life” by Richard Dooling (HarperCollins Publishers, 352 pages, $25.95) Everyone remembers “Double Indemnity,” ranked 38th on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American movies. It’s the one where insurance investigator Fred MacMurray falls for Barbara Stanwyck, throws her husband from a train for the life insurance, then unsuccessfully tries to evade colleague Edward G. Robinson and Robinson’s “little man, the one right inside here” who tells him when a claim is bogus. It’s great stuff, with the passions of the jungle � kill off the old guy for his money and his babe � straining against the slender bonds of social order spun by the little man in Robinson’s viscera. Richard Dooling, an Omaha-based lawyer whose second novel was a finalist for the 1994 National Book Award, remembers the movie, too. In fact, he has a character in Bet Your Life relate its entire plot so we don’t miss the analogy to his 21st century take on the classic. Set in a drug-sodden, cyber-connected Nebraska that Willa Cather would flee at warp speed, his effort has real strengths but misses the human core that keeps “Double Indemnity” fresh decade after decade. Dooling’s setup is inspired. Omaha’s insurance companies have reached an uneasy truce with “viaticals,” companies that buy life insurance policies from terminally ill people and resell them to “investors.” Providing an early cash-out at a discount, viaticals make free-market sense. They also can be a critical option for AIDS sufferers who have huge medical costs and assets that have dwindled to the term policy in the back of the drawer. But, as Dooling illustrates, viaticals accelerate the ghoulish gamble of life insurance, creating “an unregulated industry where investors bet on how fast AIDS victims will die.” Problems arise when viatical assumptions are violated, like when the insured buys multiple “jet-issue” policies with benefits below $50,000, low enough that no medical exam is required that would uncover his lies about medical conditions. If he lives at least two years, the policies become “incontestable” and the companies have to pay off big numbers. Or when medical science develops drugs like protease inhibitors which so extend the life of AIDS patients that they stop “dying on time,” a bummer for investors who now own the policies. Dooling brings to this setup a deft feel for the human urge to advance through deceit. In a valedictory passage, one insurance investigator intones that fraud starts when “for one day, or even just for one hour, or one minute,” the “fraudster” wasn’t himself. “After the initial shock, being a fraudster wasn’t so intolerable, and so they let it go on a little longer. Pretty soon, the hard part was over, and they just kept on being bad, because the money was good.” The book’s sardonic style limns dead-on sketches of an Omaha hovering close to apocalypse. A grieving mother approaches her son’s funeral by smearing on heavy makeup, looking like “Rawlings Athletic Eye-Black in the bags and hollows around her eyes, antiglare war paint for the big game against the heavily favored Grim Reapers.” The hard-boiled prose shines when the hero observes about the central female character that “feeling sorry for her was not on the schedule,” then puzzles on her mysteries: “I might as well drop pebbles into her and listen for a splash or clatter.” That last bon mot, however, resonates far too much. There never is a splash or clatter to help make sense of Miranda Pryor. For most of the story, she’s a fraud investigator of penetrating insight, a devastating femme fatale who carelessly tramples the hero’s heart, a tedious wine snob with an improbably extensive cellar, a fugitive from Roman Catholic dogma who engages in cybersex through Attila-the-Hun-cam but denies our hero a simple feel after years of dogged pursuit. Dooling fares no better with our hero, Carver Hartnett, also a tortured lapsed Catholic whose dominant quality is . . . I don’t know, maybe it’s his dogged pursuit of Miranda. Poor Carver is so ill-defined that when someone referred to him a hundred pages into the book, I had to flip back to dredge up his name. Miranda has Carver’s number, firing off that his sexual monomania makes her feel like “an on-line content provider, and you? You’re like two eyeballs led around by an erect browser.” It’s a great line, lamentably complete in its description of Carver. There’s a lot to admire in Bet Your Life. Tension crackles through scenes that effectively explore the weirdness of on-line connections that are both more intimate and more remote than real-time interaction. And if it never occurred to you that the story of Esau and Jacob provides a perfect vehicle for a seduction, well, me neither, but Dooling pulls it off better than you can imagine. The plot? Lenny the viatical fraud investigator dies. It looks like suicide, but Carver doesn’t believe it. Then it looks like Lenny was playing footsie with the viaticals, but Carver doesn’t believe that, either. Then it looks like Miranda was in cahoots with Lenny on the scam, and suddenly Carver’s not so sure, that “erect browser” thing starts kicking in. Who do you think turns out to be right? It’s at least as much plot as “Double Indemnity” has, so that’s not the problem. It’s the real people who are missing from the heart of Bet Your Life. For a powerful exploration of insurance fraud, one where you root for the good guys and for the bad guys, finally wondering which you would rather be, go rent the movie. And watch out for that little man inside Edward G. Robinson. David O. Stewart is a partner in the D.C. office of Ropes & Gray.

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