Category Archives: Thompson Jim

Wild Town: Jim Thompson (1957)

Jim Thompson’s tale of corruption,  Wild Town feels like a much earlier novel than The Killer Inside Me which was published 5 years earlier in 1952. The Killer Inside Me remains one of my favourite  Thompson novels, while Wild Town doesn’t feel as mature, as polished and certainly not as dark. Yet both novels feature Lou Ford. It was actually somewhat surreal to read about Wild Town‘s Lou Ford while The Killer Inside Me‘s Lou Ford lurked in my memory, but enough of that; onto the plot.

Wild town

The Wild Town of the title is a Texas oil boom town with Lou Ford as the local chief deputy sheriff. It’s the sort of place where men are expected to get drunk and get into fights, so local law enforcement is more about limiting damage.  The town itself is rowdy and not built for permanence. “Practically all the structures were temporary–built as cheaply as possible and as quickly as possible.” The town’s one hotel, the Hanlon Hotel, is a fourteen storey building where everyone turns a blind eye to various shenanigans. It’s hardly a respectable joint, but it’s not a fleabag hotel either. And this is where our main character Bugs McKenna comes in.

McKenna is fresh out of prison. His life story is a series of missteps, and he’s aware that one more mistake will land him in prison for the rest of his life. He arrives in town and is promptly thrown in jail, but then a strange thing happens. The sheriff, Lou Ford points him towards a job as the house detective at the Hanlon Hotel.

McKenna, who is used to being labelled as a jailbird, distrusts Lou Ford’s friendly, good ‘ol boy manner. (So did I.)

He was about thirty, the chief deputy. He wore a pinkish-tan shirt, with a black, clip-on bowtie, and blue serge pants. The cuffs of the trousers were tucked carelessly into the top of his boots. In Bug’s book, he stacked up about the same-in appearance-as any county clown.

His black, glossy hair was combed in a straight-back pompadour. His high-arched brows gave his face a droll, impish look. A long thin cigar was clamped between his teeth.

McKenna takes the job, and he finds that he likes having security, likes being able to shower and shave, and likes the hot coffee brought to his room every morning. The job, however, is not without its problems: first someone is stealing money from the hotel, and then the owner’s sexually rapacious wife, Joyce is determined to seduce McKenna.

While the plot sounds good, the book has its flaws. McKenna and Ford are both interesting creations but I found it impossible not to connect ‘this’ Ford with the Ford of The Killer Inside Me (a far superior novel). Also, there are a couple of bellboys who are cartoonish, and then there’s a lot of good-ol boy hee-haw slang going on which gets annoying after a while. I’d consider this a lesser Jim Thompson, so if you haven’t read any, I’d suggest you start elsewhere. Still if you’re a die-hard Thompson fan, you won’t be able to resist:

“Aw, heck. Gosh all fish-hooks. Gee willikers,” drawled Ford. “and here we-all thought we had you fooled.” 

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The Rip-Off: Jim Thompson (1989)

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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2011–It’s a Wrap

It’s never easy to whittle a year of some truly great books down to just a few personal preferences, but here goes my completely arbitrary categories anyway (in no particular order):

Novels that continue to haunt me: Little Monsters by Charles Lambert and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Perhaps the best Simenon I’ve read to date: Dirty Snow

Best of the seven Jim Thompson novels read for my noirfest: Pop 1280. The Killer Inside Me came a very close second, but the nasty sense of humour in Pop 1280 ultimately won the day.

Speaking of nasty sense of humour, the award has to go to Henry Sutton’s FABULOUS Get Me Out of Here and The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

For crime, it doesn’t get better than Drive by James Sallis.

Best classic noir: Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes and Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams (both made into films, btw).

Best 20th C American: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams

Best Classics, French: Gobseck  by Balzac. Russian: The Duel by Chekhov and The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky. British: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy.

Best new American release: Calling Mr King by Ronald de Feo

Best new British Fiction: The Old Romantic by Louise Dean, King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher–both of these were the second books I’d read by these authors and the reading enjoyment firmly sealed me as a fan of both.

Best non-fiction: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

So thanks to all my readers and all those who left comments, and also thanks to the authors who sweated blood and tears over the novels that enriched my life beyond measure in 2011.  With a good book, life is never boring.

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The Grifters: Jim Thompson (1963)

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:

The Killer Inside Me

Savage Night

A Hell of a Woman

A Swell-Looking Dame

The Getaway 

Pop 1280

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.

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Pop 1280: Jim Thompson (1964)

“I’d been chasing females all my life, not paying no mind to the fact that whatever’s got tail at one end has teeth at the other, and now I was getting chomped on.”

The Jim Thompson noirfest continues with the sixth selected title, Pop. 1280. Up to this point,  The Killer Inside Me topped the Thompson charts, followed by A Hell of a Woman, A Swell-Looking Dame, The Getaway and Savage Night. After immediately finishing Pop. 1280, I concluded that it ranked right up there with The Killer Inside Me, but I’ve chewed this over and decided that of the two books, I actually prefer Pop. 1280.

There’s no clear date for the story that takes place in Pop. 1280, but thanks to a reference to the “Bullshevicks” (Bolsheviks), the action seems likely to be set in 1917 or a few years later (news may travel slowly.) There’s a western-cowboy feel to the story accentuated by frequent references to the horse and buggy, but there are also a few cars around. The story is set in the backwater town of Pottsville, and the narrator is Nick Corey, the high sheriff–a lazy womanizer who is supposed to enforce the law in the small town of 1280 people. Nick’s philosophy, however, is that he has it “made” as long as he can keep his job and as he puts it: “as long as I didn’t arrest no one unless I couldn’t get out of it and they didn’t amount to nothin’ .”

When the novel begins, Nick, who’s happy to lay around, stuff himself with huge meals, and avoid any trouble in town is plagued by a number of problems–a pair of uppity pimps who run the local whorehouse, his virago of a wife and her peculiar brother, and his chances of re-election:

Because I’d begun to suspect lately that people weren’t quite satisfied with me. That they expected me to do a little something instead of just grinning and joking and looking the other way. And me, I just didn’t know what to do about it.

Nick reasons that he’ll be without a job if he loses the re-election, so he travels to another town to seek out the advice of sheriff Ken Lacey, a man he professes to respect. Lacey gave advice to Nick some time ago regarding a public privy that fouled the air next to his quarters, so the way Nick tells the story, he admires Lacey for his savvy advice. Nick asks Lacey what to do about the pimps, and he receives a humiliating lesson at the hands of Lacey and his deputy, Buck.

Here’s Nick on the re-election:

Always before, I’d let the word get around that I was against this and that, things like cockfighting and gambling and whiskey and so on. So my opposition would figure they’d better come out against ’em, too, only twice as strong as I did. And I went right ahead and let ’em. Me, almost anyone can make a better speech than I can, and anyone can come out stronger against or for something. Because, me, I’ve got no very strong convictions about anything. Not any more I haven’t.

Well, anyway, by the time it got ready to vote, it looked like a fella wouldn’t be able to have no fun at all any more, if my opponents were elected. About all a fella would be able to do, without getting arrested, was to drink sody-pop and maybe kiss his wife. And no one liked that idea very much, the wives included.

 Throughout the story, Nick deals with the pimps, copes with his wife Myra and her peeping tom idiot brother, manipulates the voters in the election (he stands against a very worthy opponent), and also manages to exact vengeance on a number of individuals who’ve humiliated him in the past. At first Nick tells the tale as if he’s stupid and slow, a slacker who prefers to take the easiest path, but as the tale develops, we see that Nick is cunning, clever, and that, contrary to the impression he gives everyone, he’s a strategic thinker. And if that sounds like The Killer Inside Me‘s Lou, well you’re right, except Nick is very, very funny.

The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 share some common features–both novels are narrated by small-town sheriffs, and the narrative in both cases is unreliable. The Killer Inside Me’s Lou psychotic self is deeply buried in a good ol’ boy persona which manages to fool just about everyone. Lou comes across as a bit slow, and so does Pop. 1280‘s narrator Nick Corey. He’s yet another good ol’ boy who hides his sharp brain beneath clichés and familiar sayings, but Nick’s speech is also loaded with bad grammar. Both Lou and Nick have women problems, and they both devise solutions to get rid of the women in their lives. Lou and Nick both have some medical knowledge too–although Lou, the son of a local doctor doesn’t try to hide his interest whereas Nick doesn’t flaunt his knowledge as to do so would indicate the reading of books and his innate intelligence.

There are also some big differences between Lou and Nick. When Pop. 1280 begins, Nick is stuck in a bad marriage to the much older shrewish, Myra, a woman who “looks every bit as mean as she is.” As it turns out, Myra tricked Nick into marriage. Hard to imagine Lou getting tricked into marriage, but if he did, he’d be a widower before you could turn the page on a calendar. While both Lou and Nick are crafty, Nick claims that the women in his life run him ragged, but in truth this translates to juggling the sex demands of too many women. Nick isn’t as sick and twisted as Lou, and neither does he seem predisposed to be violent with women. Nick, who’s fundamentally lazy, springs to action against the women in his life when their competing demands become too much:

I’ll tell you something about me. I’ll tell it for true. that’s one thing I’ve never had no shortage of. I was hardly out of my shift–just a barefooted kid with my first pair of boughten britches–when the gals started flinging it at me. And the older I got, the more of ’em there were. I’d say to myself sometimes, “Nick,” I’d say, “Nick Corey, you’d better do something about these gals. you better start carrying a switch and whip ’em off you, or they’ll do you to death.” But I never did nothing like that, because I just never could bear to hurt a gal. A gal cries at me a little, and right away I’m giving in to her.

Nick’s right. He can’t hurt a woman (unlike Lou), so he manipulates others to handle the women in his life.

Nick is not an admirable person, but in spite of this he seems to be a product of the society he wallows in more than anything else. Nick understands the hypocrisy of the bigoted townspeople very well, and he isn’t above turning that hypocrisy to his own advantage. Consequently he manages to run rings around the townspeople who simply don’t see him for what he really is. The townspeople really want a lawman who’ll turn the other way if crimes involve so-called good citizens; they don’t want someone who’ll enforce the law against them–although it’s perfectly ok to arrest or harass blacks when it suits. Here’s Nick taking the piss out of a man from the Talkington Detective Agency (a thinly veiled reference to the strike-breaking Pinkertons):

“Now, by, golly, that took real nerve,” I said. “Them railroad workers throwin’ chunks of coal at you an’ splashin’ you with water, and you fellas without nothing to defend yourself with except shotguns an’ automatic rifles! Yes, sir, god-dang it, I really got to hand it to you!”

“Now, just a minute, sheriff!” His mouth came together like a buttonhole. “We have never—“

“And them low-down garment workers,” I said, “God-dang, you really took care of them, didn’t you? People that threw away them three-dollar-a week wages on wild livin’ and then fussed because they had to eat garbage to stay alive! I mean, what the heck, they was all foreigners, wasn’t they, and if they didn’t like good ol’ American garbage, why didn’t they go back to where they came from?”

 Bottom line: I was beginning to suspect I wouldn’t read a Thompson novel I enjoyed as much as The Killer Inside Me, but I find myself laughing out loud at Pop.1280. Finally here’s one of my favourite quotes in which Nick describes meeting hot-to-trot Myra for the first time:

What I was thinking was that she must have buggers in her bloomers or a chigger on her figger, or however you say it. It looked to me like something had better be done about it pretty quick, or her pants would start blazing and maybe they’d set the fairgrounds on fire and there’d be a panic with thousands of people getting stomped to death, not to mention the property damage. And I couldn’t think of but one way to prevent it.

For another view check out Emma’s review at www.bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/pop-1280-by-jim-thompson/

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The Getaway: Jim Thompson (1958)

“Flight is many things. Something clean and swift, like a bird skimming across the sky. Or something filthy and crawling; a series of crablike movements through figurative and literal slime, a process of creeping ahead, jumping sideways, running backward.”

A few months ago, I committed to a Jim Thompson Noirfest. I had several Thompson titles sitting neglected on my shelf, and I’d intended to read his books for years. A conversation here sparked the commitment to hold a Thompson Noirfest, and I selected 7 titles for the read-a-thon. I blasted through The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, A Swell Looking Dame, and A Hell of a Woman. Then I made the strategical error of watching Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway right as I started the book. I couldn’t wash away the images of Steve McQueen as bank robber Doc (along with his side kick wife played by Ali McGraw). So I put aside the book and let some time pass and the film fade.

The Getaway (and I’m glad I read this title BTW as it’s a complete change of pace from the other Thompsons I read), is about a bank robbery and the subsequent attempt to escape to Mexico. The unreliable narrator is absent, and also absent is an intense character study. Instead it’s a rapid robbery, the double-crossing relationships between the thieves and then the getaway takes up most of the story. The story is punctuated by a very strange ending, but more of that later.

Thompson doesn’t neglect character in The Getaway, but neither does he linger on it (as in The Killer Inside Me). His characters are wrapped up in just a few succinct sentences. There are no layers here (The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman); what we see is what we get, and what we get isn’t nice at all. Doc, for example, is the son of a small town corrupt sheriff (back to that Thompson biography again), and Doc’s seemingly pleasant and generous nature coats the character of a cunning predator:

Doc, then, was born popular; into a world where he was instantly liked and constantly reassured of his welcome. Everyone smiled, everyone was friendly, everyone was anxious to please him. Without being spoiled–his father’s  strictly male household took care of that–he acquired an unshakeable belief in his own merit; a conviction that he not only would be but should be liked wherever he went. And holding such a conviction, he inevitably acquired the pleasant traits and personality to justify it.

Doc’s moll is Carol–a former librarian, the daughter of a nice middle-class family. Her walk on the wild side has negated any return to her former life. When the book begins, she has a taste for the bad boy in Doc–or at least she thinks she does, but things are about to get wilder than she imagined.

When the book begins, career criminal Doc McCoy is out of jail on parole. This was his second sentence. The first sentence was no biggie, but the second sentence is different as McCoy now has a much younger wife, Carol who’s “almost fourteen years his junior” left on the outside to worry about. Doc is looking at a twenty-year sentence, but with his loot to pay for the services of a “topflight criminal lawyer,” the sentence is reduced to ten years. Any hope of early release is dashed when Doc’s appeal to the parole board is denied, and at that point, Carol decides to approach one of the board members, Beynon, personally. This works, Doc is out on parole and when the book begins, he’s about to pull off his final heist before ‘retiring’ to El Ray, a remote area in Mexico that specialises in harbouring wealthy criminals on the lam.  

The robbery is swift and brutal in its execution. Doc’s partners are the horribly misshapen and mentally twisted Rudy, and a young kid named Jackson. The money is going to be split after the robbery, but both Rudy and Doc have no intention of splitting the pot, so Carol and Doc hightail it to Mexico with Rudy in hot pursuit.  Here’s Rudy–a paranoid sadist who, in many ways, is the opposite of the self-assured, confident Doc:

He was afraid to sleep, and equally fearful of awaking; from the dawn of his memory, the days had also been identified with terror. In the latter case, however, his fear was of a different kind. A cornered rat might feel as Rudy Torrento felt on coming into full consciousness. Or a snake with its head caught beneath a forked stick. It was an insanely aggressive, outrageously furious fear; a self-frightening, self-poisoning emotion, gnawing acidly at the man whose existence depended upon it.

He was paranoid; incredibly sharp of instinct; filled with animal cunning. He was also very vain. On the one hand, then, he was confident that Doc McCoy intended to kill him, as soon as he had served Doc’s purposes, and on the other, he could not admit it.

The book is full of interesting contrasts. Doc is an affable, well-liked criminal whose past behaviour has secured many allies, and this proves to be a useful factor along the escape route. Rudy, on the other hand, has no friends to help, and he kidnaps the Clintons, a veterinarian and his lascivious wife for the trip. Doc and Carol make a tight team, and Rudy sees them as an enviable couple, but as the pursuit lengthens, Doc discovers some truths about Carol that begin to irk him and which threaten to sever their partnership. Underneath Doc’s affability, lurks a predatory reptile, and it’s clear that Carol is out of her depth. 

A thread of sadistic action runs throughout The Getaway and this mainly explodes on to the many characters who fall into Rudy and Doc’s paths. There are some wonderful characterisations here–my favourite has to be Ma Santis: “Daughter of a criminal, wife of a criminal, mother of six criminal sons.” She’s a Ma Barker figure–well she would be if all that shit fabricated about Ma Barker by the FBI were true, so instead I’ll say that Ma Santis is the sort of Ma Barker figure J Edgar Hoover dreamed about.

As for the novel’s unexpected ending (not at all like the film BTW)…think nasty shades of Shirley Jackson. While the film ends on a happy note, well, that’s Hollywood for you, the book’s savagely twisted ending somehow fits the sadistic action of the rest of the book. 

On a final note about the film–It’s amusing really to hear the criticisms lobbed against Peckinpah who was known as “Bloody Sam” for his use of violence. Obviously the critics hadn’t read the book–otherwise they’d have appreciated how the screenplay toned down the book’s sadistic passages. Although I must add that the touches added regarding the Clintons are brilliant. Sally Struthers plays Dr. Clinton’s hot-to-trot wife, and the film elaborates on her role as she giggles and floozies her way into a sleazy relationship with Rudy which is openly flaunted against her tormented husband. This elaboration is a truly subversive addition to the film as Rudy’s insertion into the Clinton’s marriage acts as a sexual liberator for skanky Fran–yet another woman with a secret taste for the dark side of life:

He’s seen this babe before–her many counterparts, that is. He knew her kin, distant and near. All her mamas, sisters, aunts, cousins and what have you. And he knew the name was Lowdown with a capital L. … This babe got around. She was the original square-plug-in-a-round-hole kid. But she never changed any. She had that good old Lowdown blood in her, and the right guy could bring it out.

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A Hell of a Woman: Jim Thompson (1954)

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.

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A Swell-Looking Babe: Jim Thompson (1954)

“She’s been around, she knows what the score is, she ain’t some punk bobby-soxer with the mood in her eyes. Dames in her racket, kid–bouncing around in these nightclubs with everything showing but their appetite–they all belong to the same club. The let’s-see-the-dough-honey-and-I’ll-ask-you-no-questions.”

The noir fest continues with the third selection: A Swell-Looking Babe. I picked this one for its title. Another weird tale from another unreliable narrator, but that’s not to say that Thompson is in any way repetitive. The earlier titles I read: The Killer Inside Me and Savage Night both included an unreliable narrator, but in A Swell-Looking Babe Thompson creates a completely new (albeit unreliable) character in Dusty Rhodes, and what a little sickie he is. Did Thompson subscribe to a journal of abnormal psychology, pick a chapter and then systematically construct an individual according to his reading? That’s not a serious question, by the way, but only an observation on Thompson’s ingenuity when it comes to creating various pathological character types.

So what’s the pathology here? At first the pathological aspects of Dusty (Jim) Rhodes aren’t glaringly apparent. In fact Dusty, a night shift bell boy at the Manton hotel appears to be possess a lot of positive attributes. According to his own evaluation, he’s extremely good-looking. He had planned to be a doctor, but following the death of his adoptive mother and the disgrace of his ex-principal father, Dusty drops out of college. He’s now the sole wage earner, so he takes a job as a night-time bell boy as the night shift gets more tips than the day workers.

Dusty’s home life with his father is problematic. Mr. Rhodes, just past sixty, is a broken man after losing his job on the grounds of being a Red sympathizer (these are the McCarthy years). The unemployed widower, already in frail health, appears to be shifting into senility:

He went days on end without shaving, weeks without a haircut. His soiled baggy clothes looked like they’d been slept in. He looked like a tramp–like a scarecrow out of a cornfield. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was what he’d let happen to himself mentally. He seemed to take pride in being absent-minded, in seeing how stupidly he could do the few things that were left for him to do.

Dusty continually hands his father money, but it seems to disappear. Dusty suspects that his father gives every penny to lawyers, “those dirty thieving shysters” in an attempt to rally a lawsuit against the school district. While Dusty works hard to support his ailing father, he comes under constant criticism from the doctor who treats Mr. Rhodes and also from the lawyer, Kossmeyer.

Thompson constructs a narrative and then the layers are gradually peeled away after Dusty meets a woman …

Sure, he’d seen some good-looking women before, at the Manton and away from it. He’d seen them, and they’d made it pretty obvious that they saw him. But he’d never come up against anything like this, a woman who was not just one but all women. that was the way he thought of her, right from the first moment. All women–the personification, the refined best of them all. She was twenty. She was thirty. She was sixty.

This goddess, and that’s how she’s described more than once by Dusty, is exotic dancer Marcia Hillis. He can’t quite place her age–she has soft, lustrous gray hair, she oozes sex, and she has a fantastic figure. She checks into the Manton hotel one night after midnight. There’s something fishy about the set-up and it stinks from the start. Single women are not allowed to take a room, but the night desk clerk, Bascom, not only lets her check in, he also gives her one of the cheaper rooms usually reserved for long-time customers.

There’s the possibility that she’s a spotter, “some prize looker” hired by the hotel management. These undercover, seductive dames test hotel employees by luring them to sex acts and then blowing the whistle to the boss. Since Marcia Hillis isn’t the typical guest, Dusty suspects that she may well be a spotter. And indeed, she does tease Dusty after getting him alone in her hotel room:

A little red flag in his mind was swinging for all it was worth. He didn’t want any tip from her, only to get out of there before something happened that had better not happen.

Poor Dusty. He’s overworked, underappreciated, & missed his chance at college and a career as a doctor. His father is a leech, and everyone picks on him: hotel management, his father’s doctor and his father’s lawyer. Yes this  is the narrative Thompson constructs, but through events that take place and a series of flashbacks, we see that all is not as it first appears. Under the surface there’s some very ugly stuff going on. Yes there’s a heist, a con and a double cross, but even worse than that, there’s a man with some very serious mummy issues….

Through the years, he had been so formed that he could accept only one woman. And without her there could be nothing–no rest, no peace, no completion. Only an aching void where strange fears dwelled and multiplied, and gnawed unceasingly.

Thompson begins to drop hints that Dusty’s carefully constructed life story won’t stand up to scrutiny, and as the heat turns up on Dusty, he unravels.

Freud could have made a case study of Dusty, and depending on how you read A Swell-Looking Dame, you might argue that Dusty’s mother needed professional help too. In Savage Art, a Jim Thompson biography by Robert Polito, several notes appear about the intensity of the relationship between Thompson and his mother, so you can read what you want into that. On another biographical note, Thompson worked as a bellboy at The Hotel Texas when he was 17-years-old, and interestingly, the provisional title for A Swell-Looking Babe was What the Bellboy Saw (which has a Victorian peepshow ring to it).  This early employment gave Thompson plenty of creative material to use later on, for while The Hotel Texas looked like a decent joint on the outside, the young bellboy was expected to procure booze, drugs and dames for the guests. He earned $15 a month, but netted about $300 a week in tips. Thompson was supporting his family at the time, so the cash was needed. On a fascinating note, Thompson was nicknamed Dolly by the hotel staff, and that’s the name of the main character in my next pick: A Hell of a Woman.

In order of preference so far, I’d place A Swell-Looking Babe above Savage Night but below The Killer Inside Me.

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Savage Night: Jim Thompson (1953)

“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.

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Jim Thompson Noir Fest 2011

The Jim Thompson Noir Fest begins May 1, 2011. Here are the books I’ll be reading:

The Killer Inside Me (1952)

Savage Night (1953)

A Swell-Looking Babe (1954)

A Hell of a Woman (1954)

The Getaway (1959)

The Grifters (1963)

Pop. 1280 (1964)

I selected those titles out of curiosity mainly, and if I get particularly ambitious, perhaps I’ll read that After Dark, My Sweet (1955). For those interested in the book-film connection, there have been a number of film adaptations of Thompson’s work:

The Killer Inside Me (2010 & 1976)

This World then the Fireworks (1997)

The Kill-off (1989)

A Swell-Looking Babe (Hit Me) 1996

The Getaway (1994 & 1972)

The Grifters (1990)

After Dark, My Sweet (1990)
Coup de Torchon (Pop 1280) 1981

Série Noire (A Hell of a Woman) 1979

Thompson (1906-1977) was a lot more prolific than I realised, so it was no easy matter selecting a few books to cover. He was not a well-known author in his lifetime, but his reputation grew with the republication of a number of his titles by Black Lizard Books. Perhaps the film adaptations brought a new audience too. Thompson had the nickname ‘Dimestore Dostoevsky,’ so I’m intrigued about that. I’m curious to see how much of that “dialectic of isolated consciousness” exists in his books. I’m also curious to see whether the books are blatantly cinematic.

Thanks to comments & encouragement from Leroy & Lichanos, I feel inspired to get these neglected volumes off my shelf and read them. The next few weeks will not be exclusively Thompson and I’ll read a few other non-Thompsons in-between as the antidote.

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