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The Killer Inside Me: Jim Thompson (1952)

“I guess I kind of got a foot on both fences, Johnnie. I planted them there early and now they’ve taken root, and I can’t move either way and I can’t jump. All I can do is wait until I split. Right down the middle.”

When I decided to hold a Jim Thompson noir fest, the first thing I had to do was narrow down which books to read. I had no idea that Thompson had written so many, so for the final tally, I ended up selecting books with a film connection as well as a couple of titles that stuck out for some reason (A Swell Looking Babe, now how could I pass that up?). I decided to start with The Killer Inside Me. This is not Thompson’s first novel, but it seems to be the one that unleashed some sort of creative power; after its publication, Thompson’s production rate picked up dramatically. The Killer Inside Me had been sitting on my shelf for some years, and since I saw the film version in 2010, this was the novel I was most curious about. I’d read a lot of hype about it and wasn’t too sure it would live up to its reputation.

What was I thinking? The book is fantastic. But I’ll add a caution to that–not everyone wants to read a book written from the perspective of a total psycho.

The Killer Inside Me is a deeply unsettling read. The narrator is Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in the small Texas town of Central City. It’s one of those sleepy towns where nothing much ever happens, and everyone knows everyone’s business and past history. There’s one main wealthy family whose patriarch, Chester Conway, has a finger in every pie. Lou Ford is the son of the local doctor (now deceased), and Lou lives alone in his father’s home. He had an adopted brother, Mike, who was jailed for some crime against a child. When Mike was paroled, he returned back home and became a building inspector only to die in a strange construction-related accident.

The trouble begins when Lou is asked by his boss, Sheriff Bob Maples, to shake down a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland who has recently moved to a cottage right outside of town. Apparently some the locals are upset about the close proximity of a prostitute, and it’s Lou’s job to go out there and assess whether or not to let her stay or to throw her out-of-town. The meeting with Joyce is significant and through their relationship, Lou’s psychotic behaviour, something he calls “the sickness”  is unleashed.

The Killer Inside Me is partly a revenge tale, and the novel is Lou’s attempt to explain and justify his crimes. In my opinion Lou has far too much fun taking revenge, so I’d argue that Lou’s vicious murders are rooted in instinctively sadistic, violent behaviours and that the revenge aspect is the sugar-coating for a slew of brutal murders.

Lou Ford is an incredible fictional creation. Imagine a total psycho leading an apparently normal life, but it’s even worse to give that psycho a badge and an almost unlimited power over people; he’s just a timebomb waiting to explode. That’s just the scenario in The Killer Inside Me. The real Lou Ford is submerged under a persona of the ‘good ol’ boy’. He seems slow and is full of cliché ridden speech which he loves to roll out in front of people. This carefully crafted persona acts as a mask for the cunning and violence that lurks beneath the surface. Anyone who ‘knows’ Lou cannot believe that he’s capable of violence. He has a reputation for calming & talking down drunks, but his method really is just to wear them down to the point of exhaustion. Just think of a cat playing with a mouse. He plays with everyone in a similar fashion, and while he plays slow, boring ol’ Lou, he feeds off of the discomfort and gullibility of acquaintances. Here’s Max, the owner of the local diner praising Lou:

“Because you are good, you make others so.” He was all ready to sign off with that, but I wasn’t. I leaned an elbow on the counter, crossed one foot behind the other and took a long slow drag on my cigar. I liked the guy–as much as I like most people, anyway–but he was too good to let go. Polite, intelligent: guys like that are my meat.

“Well, I tell you,” I drawled. “I tell you the way I look at it, a man doesn’t get any more out of life than what he puts into it.”

“Umm,” he said, fidgeting. “I guess you’re right, Lou.”

“I was thinking the other day, Max; and all of a sudden I had the doggondest thought. It came to me out of a clear sky–the boy is the father to the man. Just like that. The boy is the father to the man.”

The smile on his face was getting strained. I could hear his shoes creak as he squirmed. If there’s anything worse than a bore, it’s a corny bore. But how can you brush off a nice friendly fellow who’d give you his shirt if you asked for it?

Lou’s method of playing with people until they feel uncomfortable is a sort of low-level sport:

Striking at people that way is almost as good as the other, the real way.

As the plot continues, Lou unravels. There have always basically been two Lous–the one people see: the dull-witted, boring Lou, and the sociopathic, violent & manipulative Lou who’s hidden from plain view. As a matter of survival, Lou tries to contain and resubmerge this aspect of himself, but there’s a point at which he crosses a line and he can no longer assume his old act. As one murder grows into two murders, his good ol’ boy act moves from speeches full of cliché to sly and mean comments, and while Lou thinks he’s still clever enough to fool everyone, he simply can’t quite stuff the killer inside back down underneath the surface. Lou dons his good ol’ boy persona like a costume; sometimes it slips, and he has to make an adjustment.

Lou reveals his plans for various murders to the reader ahead of time, and then we see him slip into chameleon mode as he spouts the emotional reactions he considers appropriate for the occasion to bystanders. He thinks he has all the bases covered but these are the plans of psychopath–they may sound good to him, but they’re still deranged. Unfortunately those who love Lou have the most difficult time accepting the truth, and this is, as it turns out, a deadly error in judgment.

The Killer Inside Me is disturbing and chilling for its creepy portrait of Lou Ford–a sociopathic, emotionless chameleon who’s adopted a character ‘type’ which allows him to operate successfully in his small Texas town. He’s well-liked and admired–his boss Bob Maples is very fond of Lou–enough to regard him as a son, and Lou has a long-standing relationship with local schoolteacher, Amy Stanton. No one suspects that under that good ol’ boy persona of a man who’s a little slow but good-hearted lurks a pathological killer whose thirst for violence is barely held in check. As readers we get a ringside seat at Lou’s ability to mask his brutal tendencies, and it’s not a comfortable view at all. Our level of discomfort only increases as Lou unravels before our eyes. The only question is ‘how far will he go before he’s stopped?’ The Killer Inside Me refers, of course, to Lou’s submerged violent nature, but it also refers to the killer whose chilling narration enters our brains as we read the book–the killer is effectively inside us.

One of the reasons The Killer Inside Me is an uncomfortable read is that it explodes several notions. Here’s Lou Ford, a dangerous psychopath who’s armed with a badge. He can commit various atrocities and get away with it:

It’s not legal , but I found out long ago that the place where the law is apt to be abused most is right around a courthouse.

The story also destroys the notion that we ‘know’ anyone. Growing up in a small town with decades of history is no security. In fact, making assumptions based on ‘knowing’ someone is bad for the health of more than one character in the book. Joyce Lakeland has the surest view of Lou from their first meeting, but instead of being repulsed, she is drawn to him.

Lou discusses what he calls his sickness and he also claims that he tries to control it, but just how honest is his narration? We know Lou’s version of events becomes increasingly warped as he slips farther and farther away from reality. There are times when Lou turns that fake good ol’ boy persona on to the reader. Here he is discussing why he likes to spend nights in his father’s office reading his medical books:

It had always made me feel better to come here, back from the time I was kneehigh to a grasshopper. It was like coming out of the darkness into sunlight, out of a storm into calm. Like being lost and found again.

I got up and walked along the bookcases, and endless files of psychiatric literature, the bulky volumes of morbid pyschology….Kraft-Ebing, Jung, Freud, Bleuler, Adolf Meyer, Kretschmer, Kraepelin…All the answers were here, out in the open where you could look at them. And no one was terrified or horrified. I came out of the place I was hiding in–that I always had to hide in–and began to breathe.

Lou reminds me of some sort of creature who has adaptive mechanisms for survival in an alien environment. Think of all those sci-fi films that depict alien creatures dropping to earth and then assuming camouflage or inhabiting a host so that they won’t be identified and exterminated. This is Lou in a nutshell.  It’ll make your skin crawl.

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