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 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.