The Rip-Off by Jim Thompson

After reading seven Jim Thompson novels, I didn’t think I’d find an eighth a disappointment, but I did. Initially rejected by Sphere Books, The Rip-Off was published posthumously in an “heavily edited serial” in The New Black Mask Quarterly in 1985. The novel was published in 1989. In Savage Art, discussing the novel, Thompson’s biographer, Robert Polito writes “the radical chic title couldn’t resuscitate the creaky double-indemnity insurance scam story or the spent Thompson shtik.” It’s hard for this fan to admit that it was a struggle to finish the book, and that the narrative felt tired and forced. Still you know how it is, even when you’re advised that a book is less than stellar, sometimes you just have to read it for yourself….

The Rip-offThe book’s structure is a little clumsy. It starts in a sleazy motel with Britt Rainstar, the last surviving member of a once illustrious family, post hot sex, pinned down by a huge dog. Then the novel moves back in time to reveal how Britt met and became involved with Manuela Aloe, the crazy, sexually-rapacious niece of Patrick Xavier Aloe, the head of a shady corporation known as PXA. Their initial meeting is prefaced by Manuela bitch-slipping a screaming female victim–not a good sign, and the bad signs keep rolling in. Manuela borders on the deranged, and then just how did her first husband die? After catching us up on the plot, then we’re back in the present and move forward through Britt’s numerous weird encounters and brushes with death.

Heavily in debt and the family fortune gone, Britt, leads a drab existence with a drunken housekeeper in the dilapidated family mansion. He’s married to a nasty piece of work named Connie, a woman he met and bedded briefly before being shanghaied into marriage by her enraged father. A brief miserable married life ended with Connie injured and left crippled thanks to Britt’s driving. Now separated, with Connie refusing a divorce, Britt is constantly harassed to send his nagging wife money, and since he doesn’t have any, there’s constant friction and threats. So when Manuela and her uncle offer Britt a ludicrously well-paid job at $35,000 a year writing ecological pamphlets, he thinks all his problems are solved. After sex, Manuela frequently tosses $2,000 “bonus” checks Britt’s way, and it seems more likely that these checks are for the sex than for the pamphlets. Britt soon gets the message that he’s being lined up for the full-time, exhausting job as Manuela’s next husband, but there’s a problem; he’s already married….

Thompson has a gift when creating women from hell. Here in The Rip-Off, there are three women you wouldn’t exactly want to turn your back on: hot but insane Manuela, red-headed nurse Kay, and wife Connie, described, in poor taste, by Britt:

Who am I to kid around about poor Connie and her over-stretched snatch? Or to kid about anyone, for that matter. It’s one of life’s saddest pranks to imbue the least sexually appetizing of us with the hugest sexual appetites. To atone for that joke, I feel, is the obligation of all who are better endowed. and in keeping that obligation, I have had many sorrier screws than Connie. I have received little gratitude for my efforts. On the contrary, I invariably wind up with a worse fucking than the fucking I got. For it is also one of fates jokes to dower superiority complexes on girls with the worst fornicating furniture. And they seem to feel justified in figuratively giving you something as bad as they have given you literally.

So there you have it, late Thompson.

The fuzzy plot centres on who is trying to kill Britt Rainstar and why, and cop Jeff Claggett steps into the fray to discover just who is behind all the attempts on Britt’s life. Probably the best thing would be to lock Britt up in a monastery somewhere in Tibet for safekeeping, but Britt can’t leave women alone, and by his own behaviour invites danger into his home. Britt is a weak man and always takes the path of least resistance, so he’ll gladly fall into bed with any female that pushes him onto the sheets. True to form, he’s also a passive victim of his thieving, drunken housekeeper.

The other Thompson novels I’ve read so far are all darker and much more violent while The Rip-Off is more of a romp with sexual crudity thrown in. Thompson’s psychopaths in their various forms ring true, and Thompson enters their minds, exploring and exposing their pathologies, but we don’t get that level of psychological  insight in The Rip-Off–the characters are two-dimensional and more types than fully fleshed people. Britt, for example, doesn’t make a particularly interesting main character. The novel is also cruder in shape and content than the other Thompson books I’ve read. It feels much more modern, for example,  when Connie calls Britt a “pile of shit,” but other aspects of the story have a 50s feel. Britt hints that his father was ruined by his stance against the House on Un-American Activities and the insurance double-indemnity aspect to the story harks back to decades earlier with the result that there’s a sort of an uneasy dissonance to the novel.  I’m glad this wasn’t the first Thompson I read, and I’m also pleased that I didn’t follow chronological order and leave this for last. Thompson (1906-1977) wrote The Rip-Off when his career was in decline. He suffered from alcoholism and cataracts and was mired in financial difficulties. Apparently, at the time of his death, all of his novels were out of print in America.

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19 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Thompson Jim

19 responses to “The Rip-Off by Jim Thompson

  1. leroyhunter

    Sounds like a dud alright, a pity but inevitable that the quality control goes when the extra-curricular distractions (ie life) start to catch up. This sounds like the kind of crazy / trashy / lurid I’d expected from accounts of his life and decline.

    “Apparently, at the time of his death, all of his novels were out of print in America” – a staggering fact, until you consider the same (or similar) fate has befallen much more famous and respectable novelists than Thompson. Sometimes I feel a little displaced guilt about guys like Thompson who are rediscovered / reassessed / become huge successes after their time.

    I read another Parker book by Stark / Westlake over the weekend – I do like that series. Anyway, John Banville has written the intro for the Uni of Chicago editions. In it, he says: “With the exception of the likes of [Stark], James M Cain, Jim Thompson, and Simenon – that is, the Simenon not of the Maigret books, but of what he called his romans durs – all crime writers are sentimentalists at heart, even, or especially, when they are at their bloodiest.”

    • In the bio, there are financial problems (a dispute, a lawsuit). At one point Thompson secured a large cheque, rented a nice place but shortly thereafter, they were living in a dump…(according to his daughter’s description).
      Very sad. But then he was still trying to write under a cloud of misfortune.
      I like the quote. I’m going to chew that over.

      Have you tried any of the Banville/Black novels? I tried a couple and thought they were ok, but with the passage of time, I feel no urgency to return to the series.

      • leroyhunter

        The quote grabbed me as well. It made me more interested to read his own attempt at crime, and I hadn’t had any real interest in that up to now. I wonder if he avoids that “sentimentality” himself – he does in his “straight” books, almost as an article of faith.

  2. I’m like that as well, even when I now something might not be stellar if it’s by an author I normally like, I want to find out for myself.
    I’m not going to read this, especially not since I still have three unread novels here.

    • I have several other Thompsons on the shelf and I’ve heard that some of them are excellent. I’d like to think that a few of the unread titles could be as good as some of the ones I’ve already read.

  3. I have been meaning to read Jim Thompson for some time, I guess that this is not the place to begin.

    I am always leery of books published after an author’s death, though of course some are worthy efforts.

  4. I cheated, I’d seen your rating on goodreads before you published the review, so I expected your disappointment.
    Too bad. Thanks for reading it for us, we’ll turn to his other novels before.

  5. I love Thompson, as you know, and I’ve probably read eight or nine of his books, though I will skip this one. I can’t say I have ever felt him to be a “sentimentalist at heart.” He always struck me as too philosophical and critical.

  6. leroyhunter

    Yes, like all generalisations it risks falling apart under scrutiny. And possibly I’ve done Banville a disservice by quoting what is an arresting line without saying what he means by it.

    Briefly, what he suggests is that the “sentimental” crime novel has as its aim that the world be restored to rights – by the clearly identified agents of Right (i.e. cops and dicks) overpowering or outwitting the scarred, devious minions of Wrong (i.e. crooks). Thus the “sentimental” crime novel offers an exaggerated version of all fiction’s promise to put order on life’s chaos. Such books are also an “escape” in the sense that men are men, women love them for it, and righteousness is ultimately respected and rewarded.

    Clearly none of these things are true in the case of the four authors Banville chooses as his exceptions (that there may be more than four doesn’t, I think, invalidate the theory). In their books, the “heroes” are often crooks, killers, lunatics or the morally stunted. Cops frequently never appear, or if they do, are hopeless or tardy. The laws of chance or the jungle apply – much like in real life.

    It’s food for thought, and I’m a sucker for a good one-liner.

  7. No worries. You didn’t do Banville a disservice at all. Generalisations are just that, and they always have exceptions (which he noted). It got me thinking of why I like certain writers (Simenon, for example) and then I started thinking about The Raymond novel I read which was relentlessly dark in its vision. My preferred vision when it comes to crime.

    I grow tired with many police procedurals esp if the killer is some sicko who locks up people and tortures them. We always know how these books will end. I thought the recent series THE FALL took some chances ending the way it did.

    • I’d add Ken Bruen to the mix. Have you read him? If not, I’d say you’d love his work.

      Black and white is much less interesting than that gray moral ambiguities.

      • leroyhunter

        Funny, I heard Bruen interviewed on radio here recently. The name resonated as I’d read your reviews. Haven’t picked one up yet but he’s in my mind.

  8. I actually found that quote quite hard to follow, and ugly enough that I didn’t particularly enjoy rereading it to work it out.

    Eh, there’s often a reason that posthumous books weren’t published in an author’s lifetime. I’m not a huge fan of going through their bins looking for stuff that didn’t make the grade while they were alive.

    I’ve written up all five of the Derek Raymond factory novels at mine. To say he lacks sentimentality is a bit like saying Stalin lacked mercy. It smacks ever so slightly of understatement. Raymond is unsparing to the point of sometimes being hard to read.

    I do know what Banville means. Most crime is ultimately comforting in that while terrible things happen order ultimately is restored, and the reader knows from page one that it will be.

    Noir isn’t like that. Noir is existential. There is no order to be restored, and if justice exists which is doubtful there’s no prospect of anyone receiving it.

    That for me is the essential difference between crime fiction generally and noir specifically. Crime posits a universe where order has meaning. Noir posits a universe in which there is no meaning.

  9. I didn’t know that this was a posthumously published book until I read the bio.. Anyway, just glad I didn’t leave it until last, and I usually like the chronological approach.

    And as for crime and sentimentality, I’ve been thinking a bit more on the topic. Crime fiction is such a huge umbrella term. On one range of the spectrum there are cosy village mysteries, bloodless for the most part, and on the other.. well some very nasty stuff.

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