Thursday, August 16, 2007

Author Du Jour: Jim Thompson

(courtesy of: The Killer Beside Me: The Jim Thompson Homepage)

Born September 27, 1906, James Meyer Thompson grew up in Oklahoma to become one of the finest pulp novelists of The Cold War era. His life during the Depression and his up and down family history of working the wildcat oil fields of Texas seeped into Jim's dirt-under-the-nails writing as he created characters at displaying both brutality and empathy.

Thompson began his career as a more "traditional" writer, publishing his first two novels, Now and on Earth and Heed the Thunder as hardbacks. After these books failed to find wide audiences, Thompson found his voice in crime fiction, grinding out hellish tales for paperback mills such as Lion Books and Gold Medal. While on the surface indistinguishable from the rest of their kin, those who dropped a quarter on one of Thompson's novels were exposed to a vision of the world as seen through Thompson's eyes; much of it ugly, little of it good, where redemption goes for a premium and an unnerving honesty to oneself pervades.

Thompson's best known novel is The Killer Inside Me, the story of a doomed small town sheriff unable to control his blood lust as circumstances force him to kill and kill again. Other notable books include Savage Night, The Getaway, and his often-overlooked novella masterpiece, The Criminal.

In the mid-fifties, Thompson began walking the long rough road to Hollywood. He worked with a young Stanley Kubrick on screenplays for two of the director's earliest films, The Killing (w/Sterling Hayden, from the novel Clean Break by Lionel White) and Paths of Glory (w/Kirk Douglas). What would seem a promising start never materialized, and Thompson's screen fortunes took a downward turn after that, and he spent the rest of his career writing unproduced screenplays and teleplays for low-rent television programs like Convoy and MacKenzie's Raiders.

Like jazz and Jerry Lewis, Thompson's writings found a life in France. Besides translating several of his novels, two films, Coup du Torchon (based on Pop. 1280) and Serie Noire (A Hell of a Woman), were made to much acclaim by French filmmakers.

A good number of Thompson's works have been put on screen by American filmmakers with varying degrees of success. These include The Getaway (twice, three times if you include the first half of the Rodriguez/Tarantino B-movie rave-up From Dusk 'til Dawn), The Grifters (nominated for four Oscars),and After Dark, My Sweet. The latest, This World, Then the Fireworks (w/ Billy Zane and Gina Gershon), was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997 to a positive audience.

Two biographies of Thompson have been published. The first, Sleep With the Devil, by Michael McCauley, was published in 1991. Savage Art: a Biography of Jim Thompson by Robert Polito, was published by Knopf in 1995. Polito's book won both the Edgar and National Book Critics Circle awards.

Thompson died on April 7, 1977, and had his ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean. As he had predicted, Thompson did not live to enjoy his own success.

The Classics
(stolen from the highly recommended site,

Nothing More Than Murder (1949)

Thompson's first noir classic and a variation on the old double indemnity shocker. Joe Wilmot and his wife Elisabeth (a woman with "trouble spelled all over her") jointly own and run a profitable smalltown movie house. Their marriage is empty and passionless and made more complicated when Carol Farmer, a business student, comes to lodge with them. Despite Carol's singular unattractiveness compared with Elisabeth, Joe has an affair with her: Elisabeth finds out (she craftily encourages the liaison) and blackmails the couple to fix an insurance scam in which she supposedly dies (substituting an innocent victim in her place) and nets the lucrative pay-off. Murder, arson, blackmail and suicide combine to make an exciting edge-of-the-seat thriller.

The Killer Inside Me (1952)

Perhaps Thompson's finest book. Stanley Kubrick called it "the most chilling and believable first person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered." The main character, Lou Ford, a smalltown sheriff, suffers from "the sickness," a psychopathic need to kill. Ford conceals his true identity under the guise of an inept, wise-cracking lawman: in truth he is one smart cookie (he reads psychological treatises and solves calculus problems for enjoyment). He is also a schizophrenic thug with a compulsive need to control, and if necessary, destroy, others. Thompson also invests Ford with a sickening, black humour: "I think I've broken the case," says Ford, after he's just secretly snapped the neck of one of his key witnesses held in custody! This disturbing, compelling masterpiece redefined noir.

Savage Night (1953)

A bizarre gangster novel which pays homage to the hard-boiled style of writers like Dashiell Hammett. Savage Night tells the story of Charlie "Little" Bigga, a pint-sized hitman who is blackmailed out of retirement by "The Man" to kill Jake Winroy, whose testimony as a key witness in a racketeering case threatens to expose the mob. Features all the usual Thompson ingredients of human depravity: lust, blackmail, murder, and a particularly gruesome rape scene where the consumptive Bigga ravishes Ruthie, a one-legged girl!

A Swell-Looking Babe (1954)

Thompson uses his experience as a former hotel bellboy to supply the authentic background to this novel about Bill "Dusty" Rhodes, a bright, good-looking young nightporter who finds himself embroiled in the seductive Texas underworld. The babe of the title is the vampish blonde bombshell, Marcia Hillis, working a scam with gangster Tug Trowbridge to rob the hotel. Look out for Oedipal images of incest and patricide. A disturbing tale of lust, avarice and murder presented in a third person narrative.

A Hell Of A Woman (1954)

Once again, deadly and alluring femme fatales grip Thompson's febrile imagination. Frank "Dolly" Dillon ("Dolly," incidentally, was Thompson's bellboy nickname while Dillon was his Communist party alias) is a salesman who comes across a depraved old woman who prostitutes her attractive niece (Mona) for downpayments on goods. Frank is attracted to the girl but is still married to his trampish wife, Joyce. Mona discloses to Frank that the old woman has a hidden hoard of cash ($100,000) and together they plan to kill her, setting up an unsuspecting alcoholic hobo to take the fall. Things are complicated by the suspicions of Frank's wife and his creepy boss, Staples. Expect blood, infanticide, pumpkins(!), blackmail, more twists and turns than Spaghetti Junction and the disintegration of the narrator's personality on the final page. Gripping stuff!

After Dark, My Sweet (1955)

The compelling tale of an escaped mental patient and ex-boxer (William "Kid" Collins) who gets mixed-up with a crooked ex-cop ("Uncle Bud") and booze-sozzled, spiky femme fatale (Fay Anderson). Together, the threesome hatch a plot to extort ransom money from a wealthy family by kidnapping their son from school. "Kid" Collins, however, is set-up by his treacherous accomplices as the fall guy in this taut, gripping novel of avarice, lust, betrayal and ultimately, sacrificial redemption.

Wildtown (1957)

Lou Ford returns but this time as a more humane, benevolent figure (and obviously at a time pre-dating The Killer Inside Me).

The action is set in the seedy location of Ragtown featuring David "Bugs" McKenna as a prickly, paranoid ex-con who accepts a job as a hotel detective. McKenna believes he has been hired to knock off the infirm, wheelchair-bound hotel owner by the man's glamorous young wife. Bugs accidentally kills the embezzling hotel accountant and is then plummeted into a dark world of easy sex, bloody betrayal and multiple double-crosses. Nasty!

The Getaway (1959)

What starts off as a simple bank heist yarn eventually mutates into an horrific nightmare when the book's two major protagonists, Doc McCoy and his wife Carol, find sanctuary in the kingdom of the enigmatic dictator, El Ray. After escaping capture by enduring two days in underground caves and being holed up in a mound of farmyard dung, the McCoys find that the mysterious El Ray's kingdom they flee to is no safe haven. In fact, it's hell on earth, where fugitives have to pay for their liberty with added financial and psychological interest. It's a place where one's worst imagined fears become incarnate. The effect of Thompson's grim metaphysical musings at the book's conclusion still divides the critics (both film versions dispensed with the book's original, arguably unfilmable, ending). A disturbing masterpiece.

The Grifters (1963)

The classic tale in which Jim Thompson gives the lowdown (with the help of sadistic mobster, Bobo Justus) on how to serve oranges to a person you don't like! Roy Dillon, the son of Lillie, a racetrack collector for the mob, is master of the "short con." He has a romantic entanglement with another expert grifter, Moira Langtry, who sells sexual favours to her landlord in return for the rent money. Together, the three characters get caught up in an incestuous, double-crossing menage-a-trois culminating in betrayal, infamy and murder. Another Thompson masterpiece.

Pop.1280 (1964)

Lawman Nick Corey is fat, lazy, foul-mouthed and an irritating practical joker. His memorable, moronic catchphrase is "I wouldn't say you was wrong, but I sure wouldn't say you was right, neither." But like Lou Ford before him, Corey is a sharp-witted malevolent killing-machine masquerading as a witless, innocuous clown. Set at the turn of the last century in a backwater town, Pop.1280 begins as a raucous, almost farcical comedy but descends into an apocalyptic bloodbath. A dark, disturbing novel that ranks alongside Thompson's best work.

The Rest:

Now And On Earth (1942)
Heed The Thunder (1946)
Cropper's Cabin (1952)
Recoil (1953)
The Alcoholics (1953)
Bad Boy (1953)
The Criminal (1953)
The Golden Gizmo (1954)
Roughneck (1954)
The Nothing Man (1954)
The Kill-Off (1957)
The Transgressors (1961)
Texas By The Tail (1965)
South Of Heaven (1967)
Child Of Rage (1972)
King Blood (1973)
The Rip-Off (1987)


Ironside (1967)
The Undefeated (1969)
Nothing But A Man (1970)


The Killing (with Stanley Kubrick)
Paths To Glory (with Stanley Kubrick and Calder Willingham)