Perhaps watching the film version of The Killer Inside Me drove my interest when earlier this year I decided to hold a Jim Thompson noirfest. It was time to dust off those copies and actually read them, so I committed to seven novels, and whittled down the reading list to:
And this brings me to The Grifters. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by the book-film connection, and this (and curiosity) influenced my Thompson noirfest choices (still have to read After Dark My Sweet). I saw the film version of The Grifters some years back, and while this didn’t cloud my reading, scenes from the film flooded back as I read the novel.
The protagonist of The Grifters is Roy Dillon. Any relation to Frank Dillon from A Hell of a Woman? The two men must be related in author Jim Thompson’s mind as both Roy and Frank Dillon are restless and on constant vigil for the next buck. That said, Roy Dillon is far more successful than job-shifting, small time salesman Frank, but there again, Roy has selected a goal in life and stuck to it: the short-con.
The Grifters begins by dropping us right in the action as young Roy Dillon stumbles out of a small shop, staggering from a blow to the stomach. Roy just worked the twenties–a short-con grift in which the grifter cons the shopkeeper by presenting a twenty-dollar bill in exchange for purchasing a small item. After getting his change for the twenty, then Roy produces–seemingly by surprise the change after all–and then asks for his twenty back, so in theory, if Roy manages to catch the shopkeeper off guard, he will leave the shop with almost an extra twenty in his pocket. On this day, however, the shopkeeper’s son, who doesn’t seem too swift in the brain department, catches on to the grift and lands a bat in Roy’s stomach.
As it turns out this is a pivotal event in twenty-five-year-old Roy’s criminal career. He’s been immensely successful up to this point mainly due to some crucial lessons early in the game from a seasoned grifter named Mintz:
There were two highly essential details of grifting which Mintz did not explain to his pupil. One of them defied explanation. It was an acquired trait, something each man had to do on his own and in his own way; i.e., retaining a high degree of anonymity while remaining in circulation. You couldn’t disguise yourself, naturally. It was more a matter of not doing anything. Of avoiding any mannerism, any expression, any tone or pattern of speech, any posture or gesture or walk–anything at all that might be remembered.
That’s lesson number one. Lesson number two is to keep on the move. Here’s Mintz:
New York wasn’t a big city, he said. It just had a lot of people in it, and they were crammed into a relatively small area. And no, you didn’t help your odds much by getting out of jampacked Manhattan and into other boroughs. Not only did you keep bumping into the same people, people who worked in Manhattan and lived in Astoria, Jackson Heights, etcetera, but you were more conspicuous there. Easier to be spotted by the fools. “and, kid, a blind man could spot you. Look at that haircut! look at that fancy wristwatch, and them three-tone sports shoes! Why don’t you wear a black eye-patch, too, and a mouthful of gold teeth?”
According to Mintz, there’s one exception to the constant on-the-move option:
“You can usually play a fairly long stand in Los Angeles, because it ain’t just one town. It’s a county full of towns, dozens of ‘em. And with traffic so bad and a lousy transportation system, the people don’t mix around like they do in New York. But”–he wagged a finger severely–”but that still doesn’t mean you can run wild, kid. You’re a grifter, see? A thief. You’ve got no home and no friends, and no visible means of support. And you damned well better not ever forget it.”
Now Roy is a kid with brains, and he’s reasoned that being a grifter constantly on the move is an easy way to eat up any capital gained, so he moves to Los Angeles where he basically leads a double life. He is a salesman and has been with the same firm and rented the same drab Grosvenor-Carlton hotel apartment for years, and while it’s a gig in which he earns peanuts, he supplements his income with grifting. That supplement adds up to over fifty thousand dollars which is stuffed inside some cheesy clown pictures that hang on his wall:
For his first year in Los Angeles, he was strictly a square john. An independent salesman calling on small businessmen. Gliding back into the grift, he remained a salesman. And he was still one now. He had a credit rating and a bank account. He was acquainted with literally hundreds of people who would attest to the excellence of his character.
Sometimes they were required to do just that, when suspicion threatened to build into a police matter. But, naturally, he never called upon the same ones twice; and it didn’t happen often anyway. Security gave him self-assurance. Security and self-assurance had bred a high degree of skill.
Roy’s life changes radically when his mother, Lilly, a woman who’s a mere 13 years older than Roy shows up in Los Angeles. Lilly is bad news–for one thing she works for mob bookie Bobo Justus and then again Roy has some serious mummy issues. Lilly’s job involves travelling around the country betting large sums of money to lower the odds on longshots. Normally Lilly wouldn’t be welcome in Roy’s life–after all they haven’t seen one another for years, but when Lilly arrives, she finds Roy dying from internal injuries, and she uses her mob connections to get him the best medical care.
As Roy recuperates, Lilly meets his girlfriend, Myra, long-term grifter and part-time prostitute, and while the two women instantly dislike one another, the truth is that they’re made from the same rotten mould, and now they square off over Roy….
The double life–a sort of splitting–in which the individual leads both a legal and a secret illegal life is the sort of thing we see in The Killer Inside Me and Pop 1280, and it’s when these two lives collide that Thompson’s characters experience trouble. Roy has kept the fact his real passion, grifting, from Myra, and yet Myra, who isn’t all that she appears to be, knows a fellow grifter when she sees one, and she has a good idea that Roy could be the long-term grift partner she’s been looking for.
As the story plays out, there’s the sense that these three characters are drawn to one another–almost against their will–in a savage dance of self-destruction. The Grifters is a story of insatiable appetites, and none of the three characters can give up a way of life that feeds those hungers–Lilly can’t stop working for the mob, Roy can’t give up the grift, and Myra can’t stop dreaming of the long-term con of a lifetime. These damaged characters are driven by passion for money–money which offers the sort of security that a harsh society has failed to provide any other way. Only money gives them the confidence, assurance, and security they crave, but unfortunately in The Grifters, these appetites collide. There’s even the fourth character whose insatiable appetite is literally just that–concentration camp survivor Carol tries to stuff herself with food to fill the space left by human cruelty.
Author Jim Thompson picked up the short-con from ‘Airplane Red’ Brown at the Hotel Texas in 1920s when working as a hotel bellboy. Airplane Red was one of those fascinating individuals who drifted through Thompson’s life and left a permanent impression.
Here’s one final quote about Lilly, married and pregnant at age thirteen and widowed by fourteen :
Settling down in Baltimore, she found lucrative and undemanding employment as a B-girl. Or, more accurately, it was undemanding as far as she was concerned. Lilly Dillon wasn’t putting out for anyone; not, at least, for a few bucks or drinks. Her nominal heartlessness often disgruntled the customers, but it drew the favorable attention of her employers. After all, the world was full of bimboes, tramps who could be had for a grin or a gin. But a smart kid, a doll who not only had looks and class, but was also smart–well, that kind of kid you could use.
They used her, in increasingly responsible capacities. As a managing hostess, as a recruiter for a chain of establishments, as a spotter of sticky-fingered and bungling employees; as courier, liaison officer, fingerwoman; as a collector and disburser. And so on up the ladder … or should one say down? The money poured in, but little of the shower settled on her son.