“With a dame like her, if she really liked you, you could practically throw away the brakes.”
Savage Night is the second title in the Jim Thompson noir fest. Although it’s not as successful a novel as The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night is still well-worth reading, and there are several reasons for that. More later.
The novel begins with the arrival of Charles Bigelow in Peardale, a small town in Long Island. It’s a drab place and in spite of the influx of students, the small town atmosphere dominates:
It was probably partly due to my mood, but the farther I got into Peardale the less I liked it. The whole place had a kind of decayed, dying-on-the-vine appearance. There wasn’t any local industry apparently; just the farm trade. And you don’t have commuters in a town ninety-five miles from New York City. The teachers’ college doubtless helped things along a little, but I figured it was damned little. There was something sad about it, something that reminded me of bald-headed men who comb their side hair across the top.
Before arriving in Peardale, Bigelow owned and operated a small service station in Arizona. Go back a little further, and Bigelow was a professional hitman who merits an entry in a true-detective magazine where he’s described as “the deadliest, most elusive killer in criminal history.” He’s in Peardale by order of The Man for a hit against Jake Winroy, a former Peardale barber before he landed in the big time and began handling the payoff for a“big horse-betting ring.” Following his arrest, Jake was in prison but he couldn’t take life behind bars and he started singing to the Feds. Now he’s out, back at home, back at the old family barber shop, waiting for the trial to begin in which he’s the star witness. Naturally Winroy is a nervous man. He knows that the mob will send a hit man; he just doesn’t know which direction he’ll come from.
Winroy’s sexy wife, Fay, used to the high-life but now cooling her heels in Peardale, has decided to rent rooms in their home to students in order to make a little money. Thanks to gossip combined with Winroy’s erratic (read drunken) behaviour, there are few takers. That brings us back to Bigelow. He arrives in Peardale with the backstory that he wants to return to college to ‘improve’ himself. Naturally, he needs a place to live, and rents a room from the Winroys. This gives him proximity to his victim.
Nothing goes as planned, and no one is quite what they seem. Bigelow’s fellow lodger is local entrepreneur, Kendall who occasionally engages in double speak. While Kendall seems to take an interest in Bigelow, is the interest rooted in something else?:
Kendall. Was he just a nice old busybody, a man who’d taken a fancy to me like a lot of elderly people had, or had The Man got to him? I couldn’t make up my mind about him. Twice now, well three times, I’d thought I had him figured. And each time, even now, right after he’d practically told me where I stood and handed me the deal on a platter, I began to doubt my figuring. I still wasn’t sure.
Kendall isn’t the only person who’s not quite what they seem. There’s also Jake Winroy’s wife, former night-club singer, Fay:
She had one of those husky well-bred voices–voices that are trained to sound well bred. One look at that frame of hers, and you knew the kind of breeding she’d had: straight out of Beautyrest by box-springs. One look at her eyes, and you knew she could call you more dirty words than you’d find in a mile of privies.
Although Bigelow is close enough to Winroy to perform a hit, there are a number of complications, and none of these make Bigelow’s job any easier. In fact as the weeks pass, he is increasing mired in the relationships he’s established in Peardale. He brags about being “pretty good at putting myself in the other fellow’s shoes,” and he almost immediately identifies with his victim, Winroy:
The poor bastard was kind of like me. He hadn’t been anything, but he’d done his damndest to be something.
Is Bigelow getting soft? Or is this faux-conscience just assassin foreplay?
Bigelow’s history is gradually revealed–a rootless, vulnerable childhood of poverty, and he bears the permanent mental and physical scars of these years. There are times when he evokes pity, but then just as that pity begins to sway the reader, Bigelow’s savagery eradicates any sympathy gained. Here he is on the subway:
There was a woman getting on, and I gave it to her in the breasts with my elbow, so hard she almost dropped the baby she was carrying. And she was lucky, too, but maybe the baby wasn’t. Maybe it would have been better off under the wheels. Everything ended.
Bigelow is only 5 foot tall, and that may make him seem an unlikely hit man (the first thing he does when he hits Peardale is buy a new pair of elevator shoes), but this also makes him appear less of a threat. He trusts a few of the wrong people, and he completely underestimates women. This underestimation is rooted in Bigelow’s self-image of himself as a ladies’ man. With his false teeth, contact lenses and elevator shoes, his so-called charming approach to women is slick and brutal. While women are Bigelow’s achilles’ heel, he also brags that old people like him for some reason, and the truth of that statement is revealed over the course of the novel. Bigelow, like Lou Ford, misjudges people’s reactions to him.
In Bigelow, there’s a self-loathing not far underneath the surface. While the action in Savage Night doesn’t seem as sick as twisted as that conducted by Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, Bigelow is deceptively evil. It begins with his physical stature and continues with his adopted persona. His body is in a rapid state of decay, and the theme of decay runs throughout the novel–beginning with the description of the town of Peardale and Winroy’s house. This theme then continues with the rot and decay of Bigelow’s body and his decidedly unhealthy relationships with the two women in the Winroy house, hot-to-trot Fay and the deformed student/servant Ruthie. The rot and decay of Bigelow’s body is matched by his mind–although throughout the narrative he tortures himself by imagining ‘what might have been.’
The issue of the duality of human nature which appeared in The Killer Inside Me again appears in Savage Night. Whereas Lou, the central figure in The Killer Inside Me is the character who appears fragmented and leading two very specifically separate lives, in Savage Night, most of the characters seem to have some other game afoot. Bigelow is a nervous man, so for some time it’s not apparent just how much of this is his paranoia. Just as Winroy knows that there’s a hit directed his way, Bigelow knows that The Man isn’t playing straight with him. There are times when Bigelow, who dons the persona of the nice, open, generous-hearted college kid, reveals his true nature–at one point for example, he plots a murder while attending a church service. But Bigelow is a conflicted man, and this conflict is more that he hasn’t quite grasped or understood the various parts of his character rather than flashes of conscience. Also as the novel continues, Bigelow is seen as the quintessential unreliable narrator. Just how much can we trust what he says?
For this reader, Savage Night was not as well-crafted a novel as The Killer Inside Me. Bigelow is an horrific creation. For his cunning, his insanity, and his chilling approach to personal relationships, Lou Ford makes the all-time top list of fictional crime villains, but Charles Bigelow does not. Bigelow wonders if things could have been different. There are times when his interactions with others pierce through to his emotions; perhaps all these feeling are just temporary aberrations for a hit man who appears to be getting soft, but in the final judgement, Lou Ford trumps Bigelow in the evil, sick and twisted department.