Jim Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman (originally called How Now Brown Cow) is the fourth selection for the Thompson Noir fest. I chose this title thanks to a strong recommendation from Journey to Perplexity. The recommendation was spot-on, and I’d rank A Hell of a Woman just below The Killer Inside Me but above A Swell-Looking Dame and Savage Night. A Hell of a Woman is an interesting title–after all it’s a term normally applied in a flattering way to a woman and it implies certain attributes. Thompson subverts this idea, however, and co-ops the phrase for his own purposes.
Frank Dillon, known as Dolly, the male protagonist of the story is a door-to-door salesman and collections agent for Pay-E-Zee Stores–a company that offers cheap shoddy goods on credit. Dolly is skimming the books and when the novel begins he’s “in the hole for better than three hundred dollars.” He always thinks he’ll have a lucky streak and start paying it back, but instead, he keeps digging into his accounts deeper. He’s spent most of his adult life drifting always seeking “something that looked better,” but things never get better, and Dolly’s hand-to-mouth existence is wearing thin as he ages and never gets the big break he dreamed of. Dolly’s luck with women appears to be equally cursed. He seems to have no problem getting women, but he claims that once the sheen of the new relationship ends, he’s always stuck with ‘tramps,’ and Dolly’s personal life consists of a roadmap of problematic women:
I kept thinking that if I had some little helpmeet to dwell with, the unequal struggle would not be so unequal. But I didn’t have any more luck that way than I did in the other. Tramps, that’s all I got. Five goddamned tramps in a row … or maybe it was six or seven, but it doesn’t matter. It was like they were the same person.
His current problem woman is his wife, Joyce:
That Joyce. Now there was a number for you. Kid Sloppybutt, Princess Lead-in-the-Tail, Queen of the Cigarette Girls and a free pinch with every pack. I’d thought she was hot stuff, but it hadn’t been recently, brother. I may have been stupid to begin with, but I wised up fast. Joyce–a lazy, selfish, dirty slob like Joyce for a wife.
Dolly may have started out looking for a ‘helpmeet’ but according to him he gets a domestic disaster:
We lived in a little four-room dump on the edge of the business district. It wasn’t any choice neighborhood, know what I mean? We had a wrecking yard on one side of us and a railroad spur on the other. But it was choice enough for us. We were as well off there as we would be anywhere. A palace or a shack, it always worked out to the same difference. If it wasn’t a dump to begin with, it damned soon got to be.
All it took was for us to move in.
I went inside, taking off my coat and hat. I laid them down on my sample case–at least it was clean–and took a look around. The floor hadn’t been swept. The ash trays were loaded with butts. Last night’s newspapers were scattered all over. The … hell, nothing was as it should be. Nothing but dirt and disorder wherever you looked.
The kitchen sink was filled with dirty dishes; there were soiled sticky pans all over the stove. She’d just got through eating, it looked like, and of course she’d left the butter and everything else sitting out. So now the roaches were having themselves a meal. Those roaches really had a happy home with us. They got a hell of a lot more to eat than I did.
On his sale rounds Dolly meets Mona, a stunningly beautiful blonde who lives in peculiar circumstances under the control of a hideous, miserly old crone. Mona, who is part tortured waif and part raving nympho is, according to Dolly, “poor for beef, fine for milk.” Six simple words and we have a good idea of Mona’s figure, but the comment is essentially a reflection on Dolly’s character more than anything else. Interestingly, Dolly doesn’t seem particularly lust-motivated in his quest for Mona, and his interest is part self-reflective and later part greed. As it turns out, Dolly’s meeting with Mona is significant; he becomes entangled with Mona just as his relationship with Joyce goes south.
At first, Dolly seems to be your typical cheap little chiseler who has an unhappy home life, but as the plot unfolds, his cold, dark nature crawls out with each turn of events. Not to give away too much of the plot here, I’m just going to say that there’s a robbery, some murders, and a getaway plan, but since this is noir, we know that Dolly’s plans are going to go down the toilet. But the remarkable thing here is the twist doesn’t come when you expect it.
A Hell of a Woman is a study in narrative genius. Dolly (which was Thompson’s nickname when he worked as a bellboy) is another Jim Thompson lowlife. The first person narration reveals a man who sees one side of life (his side), but Dolly talks to himself, talks about himself and has the occasional rant as he begins to unravel. Towards the end of the book, Dolly’s narration splits into two versions of events which are presented as stories with one version told by Dolly and another told by Derf Senoj & Knarf Nollid (Fred Jones and Frank Dollin). In the final chapter, two voices alternate sentences creating a seemingly insane ramble which we are left to pick apart. While Savage Night completely disintegrated into surreal madness at its conclusion, A Hell of A Woman divides and then glues back together, and this fusion creates a fractured, jarring view of Dolly’s mind. All the women in the novel are portrayed negatively, but it’s clear that these often putrid visions of womanhood are just twisted versions according to Dolly, a man who’s his own worst enemy.