After Dark, My Sweet

When a series of debilitating strokes robbed Jim Thompson of his powers of speech, it must have felt as if he had descended into the kind of nightmarish, terrifying, personal hell he reserved for some of the characters in his novels. Although, in time, Thompson recovered some ability to communicate verbally, he had to contend with another disability: cataracts on both eyes which impaired his vision to the point of virtual blindness. As if this unpleasant scenario wasn’t sufficient torment for one man to endure, the paralysing effect of Thompson’s strokes meant that the writer’s arthritic, nicotine-stained fingers were no longer able to hold a pen. For a man whose whole raison d’etre in life was defined by language and the power of words, this was the final, ignominious hammer-blow of damnation.

Bed-ridden, helpless and prompted by the stark realisation that he wouldn’t be able to write again, Jim Thompson resolved to stop eating and stoically starved himself to death. That was April 1977. Thompson was seventy years-old. But he looked older, much older. Years of alcoholic abuse and a resulting physical frailty had taken their inevitable toll. It was a wonder to many who knew him that he lived as long as he did.

Thompson’s death did not cause any ripples in America’s big literary pond. He was a forgotten figure by then, a nothing man whose brief candle had ignited brightly and briefly for a short time in the 1950s before it burnt itself out. By the time of his death, Thompson had been a spent literary force for some considerable time. His best work had appeared some twenty years earlier in an eighteen month purple-patch at the height of the nascent paperback boom in the first decade following the Second World War.

There’s no doubt that Jim Thompson was the wretched figure of a broken man on his death bed but there remained within him a courageous vestige of his optimistic old-self when he pronounced to his wife, no doubt with great difficulty in view of his speech impairment, that his time would come again and that he would be recognised in a more appreciative, benevolent future. Perhaps it was a consoling hope that he entertained to reassure himself that his life was not in vain and that his work did have value, meaning and longevity. What made Thompson’s bold pronouncement seem all the more like a pathetic act of bravado was the fact that at the time of his death, not one of his books was left in print. But, as the passage of years has demonstrated, Thompson’s confident prediction of posthumous success became a moment of prophetic foresight.

Twenty-two years after Thompson’s ashes were scattered over the Pacific ocean, the Oklahoma-born writer has entered the elite pantheon of America’s most illustrious crime writers. His name is often uttered with the same reverence and in the same breath as legendary names like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.

The 1990s witnessed a re-kindling of public interest in Thompson, although in France, where the writer has long been feted as a noir genius, his work remained popular and in print. Thankfully, Thompson’s virtues as a writer have now been finally recognised. Not only are most of Thompson’s novels now back in print but his work has inspired several Hollywood adaptations, the most notable being Stephen Frears’ superlative rendering of The Grifters (1990), and a glossy re-make of The Getaway (1994).

After long years being a literary pariah in the publishing wilderness, Jim Thompson is back, and we at CT have elected to pay homage to the man’s genius by examining his life and work.

A HELL OF A LIFE

The Early Years

If you have a Jim Thompson paperback in your possession, the chances are that the publisher’s brief biographical blurb on the inside page will state that he began writing at a precociously early age, managing to sell his first short story to the US crime magazine True Detective while still a pubescent fourteen-year-old! This sounds very impressive and while almost every recent publication of Thompson’s novels makes this claim for him, Robert Polito (author of the acclaimed and definitive book on J.T., Savage Art) has revealed that this is, in fact, patently not true. According to Polito’s exhaustively researched book, the false claim is an erroneous biographical detail: True Detective magazine did not, in fact, appear on the newstands until 1924, when Thompson was eighteen – he didn’t actually write for it until some years later in 1935. Thompson’s biographer also believes that this misinformation was probably promulgated by the novelist himself, who was not averse to mythologizing his past in order to gain favourable publicity. Despite Polito’s startling revelation and the debunking of several Thompson myths in Savage Art, spurious legends and misinformation abound in Jim Thompson’s troubled life story.

James Myers Thompson was born in a small Oklahoma town called Anadarko in 1906. His association with crime began from the day he was born if you consider the fact he was born above the town jail.

Thompson’s ancestry, like that of many Americans with an immigrant background was wide and varied, including Scottish ancestors on his father’s side and Native American roots that could be detected in his mother’s family. The fact that Thompson’s blood was one-eighth Cherokee was a source of great pride to him throughout his life. It re-inforced his own perception of himself as being an outsider and later on, when beset by health and personal problems, he began to regard his Indian heritage as the possible cause of his alcoholic addiction. His father, James Sherman Thompson Snr, was the town’s sheriff. Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, it was James Thompson Snr. who was nicknamed "Big Jim" and not young Jim, the destined author.

Those familiar with some of Thompson’s novels will probably recall the significant, sometimes pivotal role small town lawmen play in his books and indeed, Thompson’s father has been regarded by some critics as the blueprint for memorable (but psychopathic) characters like Deputy Lou Ford (who appears in The Killer Inside Me and Wildtown) and Sheriff Nick Corey (in Pop.1280).

Indeed, fact and fiction are inextricably melded in Thompson’s books. His early life experiences were documented in the novels Bad Boy and Rough Neck and although Thompson embellished and tended to sentimentalise his past, it’s easy to see why his formative years exerted a profound impact on his fiction.

From early on in his life, Jim Thompson and his family became inured to penury, hardship and a migratory lifestyle. It was largely brought about by his father’s financial misdeeds which at Anadarko resulted in massive, crippling debts and an allegation of embezzlement. Rather than stay and face the music (and the threat of probable incarceration), James Thompson Snr gathered up his family and fled Anadarko in the middle of the night. He put them on a train heading northwards while he himself ventured south to Mexico on horseback. It was two years before they heard from him again.

Jim Thompson’s fictional, somewhat Oedipal, fixation with his own father appears to stem from his frustration with his old man’s prodigal misadventures. Thompson Snr was in all probability no psychopath, but young Jim often painted him (though obliquely, refracted through the persona of characters like Ford) in distinctly unflattering terms. Thompson’s ambivalent attitude to his father was a curious mixture of reverence and disdain. He gave some of his father’s character quirks to the fictional portraits of figures like Lou Ford – apparently, Ford’s immense learning gift mirrors James Thompson senior’s own intellectual capacity. There is also the sense that in engineering the deaths of Ford and Corey, Thompson was exercising the cathartic release of his own visceral anger by "killing" his own father.

The episode in Anadarko was just the beginning of many years of frustration at his father’s hands, setting up a see-saw pattern of fluctuating economic fortunes where the Thompson family would be relatively wealthy one minute and poor the next. Over the next few years, the Thompson’s never settled anywhere for long. The family moved to Oklahoma City in 1913 where Thompson Snr. prospered, first as an auditor and then in the oil industry. His success as an oil man took the family further afield to Texas, where his rigging business brought the family temporary wealth and status. But he was soon in debt again when a reversal in his fortunes resulted in borrowing large amounts of money to keep his ailing business afloat.

It was at this time that young Jim Thompson began to take on jobs to help contribute to the household bills, including caddying at a local golf course after school hours and selling fountain pens. He also began writing, but initially just for pleasure and primarily to entertain his family. By the age of fourteen, however, Thompson routinely sold jokes and short comedy sketches to humorous magazines and was regularly published in his school’s magazine. But Thompson Jnr’s burgeoning literary aspirations were ridiculed by his father, a knowledgeable, intelligent man but one who prized action over mere words. The schism between father and son would progressively grow over the next few years as successive financial setbacks forced the family into a nomadic life. This had an adverse effect on young Jim whose schooling had already suffered as a result (he had fallen two grades behind his classmates).

The 1920s – Hotels and Hobos, Booze and Babes

It was Jim’s adolescent experiences as a bellboy working at the Hotel Texas for two years (in the early 1920s) that provided a lot of background information to many of the memorable novels he would later write (in particular, A Swell-Looking Babe). Unbelievably, Jim, managed to attend the local polytechnic in the day time and combine this with working the arduous night-shift at the hotel where he made a lot of ready cash servicing client’s often illicit needs. In addition to his legitimate role as bag-carrier and general dogsbody, Jim soon learned how resourcefulness can reap financial dividends: he became expert at procuring girls, alcohol and even drugs for the more permissive members of the hotel’s clientele. Thompson became acquainted with the criminal underworld and allegedly got on a first name basis with a number of infamous gangsters (this aspect of his life also entered his fiction). It may be just part of the elaborate mythology that Thompson cultivated, but he was also believed to have peddled drugs (he supplemented his income by picking up marijuana from Mexico), acted as a bootlegger, pimped girls and even posed as a male escort on one occasion.

The knowledge Thompson gained from this colourful, intoxicating and sometimes dangerous, university of life eventually found its way into many of his subsequent books: for example, the conman tricks or "the grift," as it was known, Thompson learned from expert teachers and became the basis of his excellent novel, The Grifters.

However, despite young Thompson’s relative affluence – as well as providing for his family, he could even afford to buy a new car from his "gratuities" – the exacting double life he led eventually took its toll on both his physical and mental health.

Although Thompson’s dependence on alcohol can be traced back to his boyhood when his alcoholic grandfather regularly treated young Jim to a drink of whisky with his breakfast, the first sign of his addiction became apparent during his tenure at Hotel Texas. Apparently, Thompson drank whisky almost continuously, using it to keep him going through the night shift and then later to induce sleep during daytime hours. At home, he had bottles of booze secreted all over the house. According to his sister, he even used cocaine to jump-start his system when he felt in need of a jolt to keep him going. Thompson also favoured alcohol as it divested him of his natural diffidence and transformed his stammering inarticulacy into sharp-talking eloquence.

Booze may have transformed the callow youth into a confident man, but Thompson paid a damning price for his excesses. Gaunt and emaciated, he collapsed from nervous exhaustion and was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. He was hospitalised and endured a painful "cold turkey," suffering the DTs and nightmarish delusions all of which eventually retreated as his dependency on alcohol was reduced. He still, however, managed to smoke sixty cigarettes a day!

On his discharge from hospital, the relationship with his father deteriorated even further when Thompson returned home only to find that his old man had "borrowed" money from his bank account.

In 1926 at the age of twenty, Jim Thompson set off to West Texas in search of work. It was a time of increasing economic hardship with the Great Depression just around the corner. Jim had initially intended to get work as a would-be oil contractor. Instead, however, he was forced to live the life of a hobo and itinerant labourer, settling for poorly paid scraps of casual work. But his sense of family duty exceeded his father’s: even in abject poverty, he sent what money he could to his family. Thompson’s left-wing political views originated from this unsettled period in his life. He always felt an outsider but his sense of not belonging to the American Dream was exacerbated by his experience as a member of America’s impoverished, disenfranchised underclass. He drifted between the seedy "ragtowns" and chaotic hobo camps (called "jungles") looking for work but, inevitably, he was seduced by alcohol in the form of the rocket-fuel hobo cocktails called "white lightning" and "canned heat!" Thompson also fell foul of the law during this traumatic period of his life and was imprisoned on several occasions for drunkenness, assault and vagrancy.

After working in the oil industry for a time, Thompson decided to get back into education. Ironically, he paid for his college fees by bootlegging alcohol. He decided to enrol at a College of Agriculture simply because he believed he could develop his writing skills by working for a local agricultural magazine. Thompson joined a writer’s workshop and even wrote poetry at this time: he was later quoted as saying that "a writer has to read poetry to keep his ear tuned." But his family was still paramount in his mind and Thompson continued to help support them by sending money gained from a variety of jobs: he worked as night-watchman, radio salesman, stenographer, local newspaper reporter and even in a mortuary! He also earned money by selling short stories to magazines.

The 1930s – Pulp Fixation

In the next few years, Thompson would get married, have a child (the first of three) and continue to move from place to place within the adjoining boundaries of Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska (these three States would later have a pivotal role in his fiction). His writing continued, mostly in the form of freelance articles for agricultural trade magazines and journals.

However, there was a new cultural phenomenon gripping the imagination of 1930s’ America. The public evinced a voracious appetite for escapism in the form of lurid tales of violent crime. In the cinema, early gangster movies like Scarface, Public Enemy and Little Caesar set a new agenda for entertainment while writers like Dashiell Hammett pioneered a new form of literary entertainment with the hard-boiled crime novel.

It was at this time that Thompson’s writing began to reflect America’s voyeuristic obsession with violent crime. He wrote articles for sensation-seeking pulp magazines like True Crime (they were called "pulps" because of the crude wood pulp they were printed on). Mostly, Thompson recreated in lurid prose grisly, real-life murders, recruiting his mother and sister to do the fact-finding leg-work: they located crime scenes, interviewed witnesses and even took illustrative photographs to accompany the articles Thompson crafted out of their detailed reports. Curiously, for a man who would populate his books with psychotic killing machines, Jim Thompson was reputedly squeamish when it came to gore, blood and guts. Here, though, Thompson learned not only the discipline of writing succinctly but the craft of sustaining reader interest, prolonging a sense of suspense and building atmosphere. Perhaps even more importantly, Jim Thompson learned to describe character with a few, adroitly-written, well-chosen words and phrases. Although the notion of plot would always prove troublesome to Thompson, his pulp writing experience taught him valuable lessons in distilling a complex plot down into a handful of tautly-written pages.

In the mid 1930s, Thompson joined the Communist Party and the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project. Viking Books published a story of his in an anthology called "American Stuff" and were sufficiently impressed to commission a novel from him. Though it was completed (entitled Always To Be Blessed), Viking never published it.

Thompson’s accomplishments during the 1930s were many and varied: in 1938, he wrote and performed in a radio play as part of the Prairie Playhouse series and for a short time, he also became a political speech writer (for his sister’s husband).

The 1940s – Alcoholism and Aeroplanes

Thompson tried to put the past and his failures behind him, seeking to make a new life out in California. He reluctantly put his infirm, mentally unstable father in a nursing home, something which would be the cause of much future guilt and be reflected in his later novels (particularly in A Swell Looking Babe).

Once relocated in California, Thompson tried his luck soliciting the big Hollywood movie studios for work but it was all to no avail. He did, however, find a job in the aerospace industry and for a while performed stock-taking and book-keeping duties in a San Diego airplane factory.

In 1942, things began to look up. Thompson published his first novel, Now and On Earth, following it in 1946 with Heed The Thunder. Both books garnered favourable critical reviews but, unfortunately for their author, sold few copies. By this time, Thompson’s alcoholism deepened to the point that his health was once again seriously threatened. A daily intake of six pints of whisky contributed to a bleeding stomach ulcer and a general deterioration in his health. All this culminated in a catastrophic nervous breakdown in 1946. During this period of his life, Jim Thompson was hospitalised 27 times for alcohol-related illness. Of course, there was a financial downside as well to Thompson’s regular hospitalisation: he and his family fell into deeper financial debt due to the piling medical bills.

As the 1940s drew to a close, Thompson managed to solve some of his financial problems by finding employment as a professional reporter on the San Diego Journal. After the death of his beloved mother in 1947 (his father had died earlier in 1941), Thompson produced a powerful book that would help change his literary fortunes.

Nothing More Than Murder (1949), followed the noir tradition established by writers like James M. Cain (author of the classic novels, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice). Nothing More Than Murder became Jim Thompson’s first success, not only receiving good reviews but going on to sell over 750,000 copies as a paperback original.

Even when flushed with literary success, Thompson’s thirst for intoxicating liquor never abated although he recognised the extent of his problem in the self-revelatory article he published around this time called The Alcoholic Looks At Himself. The grim conclusion that Thompson draws yields a prophetic self-realisation: "sooner or later an alcoholic is faced with a question of not whether to go on or give up drinking but whether to live or die."

The 1950s – The Lion Roars

Despite the popularity of Nothing More Than Murder, Thompson continued to struggle financially, supplementing his income by writing for men’s adventure magazines and also writing and editing for the Police Gazette among other numerous publications. Thompson’s big break came in 1952. His agent phoned him relating an appeal by Lion Books’ supremo, Arnold Hano, who was looking for new novels to function as paperback originals. This new species of book sought to plug the hole in the market that lay between the crude, sensational pulps and orthodox, mainstream hardback publishing at the other end of the literary spectrum.

Thompson jumped at the opportunity and in a period of frenzied inspiration churned out 12 new titles in an eighteen month period between September 1952 and March 1954. In fact, Lion Books would not catch up with Thompson’s prolific output until much later in the decade (1957).

The body of work that Jim Thompson produced in this period best epitomises the classic noir style he originated. He took the blueprint developed by Cain and Chandler and propelled it with a thermo-nuclear impulse, catapulting the genre into previously uncharted psychological territory.

The Killer Inside Me (1952), the shocking story of the brutal, psychopathic deputy, Lou Ford, described a nightmare world imploding on itself with apocalyptic violence. Many believed Thompson’s unique existential vision of the human psyche to be the product of a depraved mind. This resulted in his books being regarded as the 1950s equivalent of today’s top shelf material (indeed, the lurid covers of the first editions depicting sultry heroines and their muscle-bound male counterparts would have had a hair-curling effect in the sexually repressed, prim and proper 1950s).

With The Killer Inside Me, Thompson’s creative floodgates opened and he produced a slew of nerve-jangling thrillers, the best of which included Savage Night (1953), A Swell-Looking Babe (1954), A Hell Of A Woman (1954), After Dark, My Sweet (1955) and Wild Town (1957). For some of these titles, Thompson actually worked from publisher’s plot synopses.

Unfortunately for Thompson, Arnold Hano, the publisher and editor with whom he had developed a fruitful, almost symbiotic relationship, had decided that Lion Books was going to cease publishing paperback originals.

Thompson’s acute disappointment gave way to self-pity and he returned to the tyrannical clutches of the booze bottle for solace. He contributed stories for prestigious magazine’s like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Still beset by financial problems, Thompson joined the New York Daily News as a copy editor, though he reputedly hated correcting other writer’s work. It wasn’t long, though, before he lost this job. No one doubted Thompson’s ability as a writer but his name had become synonymous with unreliability in publishing circles. Described in this period as looking like "someone in their last hangover," Thompson’s chronic alcoholism with all its attendant problems had alienated him amongst the community he hoped to serve. He was considered unemployable and a liability. Just when it seemed that Thompson was destined to play his life out as a dime-a-dozen hack writer, salvation came his way in the form of a request by a young, Bronx-born filmmaker called Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was a self-confessed fan of Thompson (he described him as a "terrific writer") and needed someone to adapt Lionel White’s novel about a racetrack robbery (Clean Break) for the big screen.

Kubrick had graduated from being the premier photographer with Look magazine (where his precocious talents had been nurtured since high-school) to a novice director and writer on the low budget movie, Killer’s Kiss (1955). Despite its poor storyline and manifold deficiencies in the narrative department, Killer’s Kiss demonstrated the visual flair that later became Kubrick’s signature.

For his next movie, Kubrick, together with Thompson (who himself was a novice at scriptwriting), fashioned a creditable adaptation of White’s novel. United Artists retitled the movie The Killing and the rest, they say, is history. The Killing has been a seminal influence on movie-makers interested in crime, inspiring the work of acclaimed directors like Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino. Celebrated nineties’ noir novelist, James Ellroy, has cited Thompson’s writing in The Killing as having a profound influence on his own work. He summed up Thompson’s ability thus: "The Killing made a huge impression on me. Thompson not only writes great dialogue, but he’s great at capturing the psychology of his characters. You get such a sense of darkness and of loss – it’s the kind of feeling you don’t find in movies anymore."

Although a disagreement over screen credits temporarily tainted Thompson and Kubrick’s relationship (which had been productive up to that point), the pair reunited on Kubrick’s next project. This was an adaptation of a novel called Paths Of Glory by Henry Cobb, an anti-war fable (based on a true story) about a French World War One general who courts-martial his own men when they fail to launch an attack on an impregnable German fortification. With Kirk Douglas starring, Paths Of Glory proved both a critical and commercial success.

Thompson’s next major novel was the first fruit of his publishing liaison with the New English Library set-up. Titled The Getaway (1959), this Thompson classic is a gripping tale of a bank heist led by the criminal mastermind, Doc McCoy and his wife Carol. Although Thompson never wrote another movie screenplay during his life, he did produce scripts for the small screen. In 1958 he wrote an episode for the popular US TV show, The Tales Of Well Fargo and in 1965 even brought a noir-esque feel to an episode of the hospital soap-opera, Dr. Kildare.

The 1960s – Peaks and Troughs

In 1959, Thompson suffered his first stroke, experiencing temporary right-sided paralysis. The Thompson’s moved to Hollywood in 1960. Illness and poor health once again caught up with Thompson and he was hospitalised for bleeding stomach ulcers (he was initially refused treatment because of lack of funds and was admitted only after financial assistance from his new publishers). As it turned out, Thompson suffered massive internal haemorrhaging and without the treatment would certainly have died.

In the early 1960s, Thompson’s novels appeared more sporadically. A saga of accidental killing in the oilfields called The Transgressors (1961) kicked off the new decade. It was followed in 1963 by an impressive novel called The Grifters, an engaging tale of an erotically charged ménage-a-trois (mother, son and girlfriend, all of them expert con artists). The success of The Grifters enabled the Thompson’s financial fortunes to improve dramatically, resulting in family relocation to a capacious Hollywood apartment.

But wherever Thompson was, trouble always seemed to be just around the corner. The writer was greatly perturbed by his son, Michael, who had sadly followed in his father’s footsteps by descending into alcoholism and had wound up after a suicide attempt in a mental institution. Jim Thompson’s anxieties seemed to manifest themselves in the febrile imaginings of the book which is generally regarded as representing his final classic novel.

Pop.1280 (1964), features another memorable Thompson creation in the somewhat bloated form of the smalltown Sheriff Nick Corey, who like Lou Ford before him, indulges in a nefarious double act; a homicidal maniac masquerading as a dumb-ass, hick lawman.

Pop.1280 was Thompson’s final triumph. After it the writer would only produce mediocre and sub-standard work. Sadly, the progressive decline in his literary powers went hand in hand with his ailing health.

A year later (1965), Thompson was admitted for exploratory surgery after complaining of excruciating abdominal pain. As a consequence, his gall bladder was removed along with almost half of his badly ulcerated stomach. Unfortunately, though, and as he had experienced so often before, Thompson’s extended hospital stay (this time lasting three weeks), had pushed the family into deeper financial crisis. Their debts now amounted to several thousand dollars.

This was the same year that Thompson published Texas By The Tail (1965), a yarn populated by the usual cast of grifters, gamblers, alcoholics and, of course, shapely femme fatales.

Two years later, South Of Heaven was published by Gold Medal. For once (and for the first time since Now And On Earth), the book did not possess a depraved criminal narrator. The novel waxed nostalgically on the author’s own exploits as a "powder monkey" (someone who helped plant dynamite to clear a path for the laying of an oil pipeline) in the oil industry.

In 1968, Avon Books commissioned King Blood, a novel which provided further evidence of Thompson’s waning literary powers. Set at the turn of the last century and loaded with lashings of gratuitous sex and violence, King Blood came across like an over-the-top, poorman’s parody of Thompson-esque style, descending into bathos and cheap sensationalism. Curiously, Thompson’s father, "Big Jim" and his uncle, Harry Thompson, both US Marshalls, make cameo appearances under their real names in the book. This novel also contains one of the most shocking, macabre (and yet humorous!) scenes ever committed to paper in the name of crime writing. It describes the character Arley King about to "scalp" (for want of a better word!) the pudendum of Big Sis Anderson:

" ‘Wish I had me a nickel for every puss I cut off," he went on, carefully reinscribing the circle with his knife. "An ol’ Indian trick, y’know, an’ us Kings are probably more Indian than white. Funny thing is the woman don’t hardly feel it – you don’t feel nothin’ do you?- till a long time afterward. That’s maybe because it’s mostly muscle, you know, an’ stretchy: got more give to it than a mile o’ cat gut. Why I seen a fella stretch a gal’s puss clean over her head, an’ then let it snap shut around her neck. Man, oh, man, what a sight to see!" His body shook with laughter. "That gal was flingin’ herself around like a chicken with its head off: strangled to death by her own tokus.’ "

Avon books were understandably cagey about their commitment to King Blood and declined to proceed with the book’s publication. The novel eventually appeared in 1973, in Britain of all places, where it was published under the Sphere imprint. The book did not appear in Thompson’s native USA until after his death.

Prior to the execrable King Blood, Thompson agreed to undertake "novelisations" of movie and TV scripts for Popular Library. He produced three of these so-called tie-ins, the first being an Ironside adaptation (the TV show currently receiving daytime airing on BBC1 starring Raymond Burr as the wheelchair-bound detective).

{Image3}The 1970s – Decline and Fall

In the early 1970s Hollywood directors continued to show an interest in Thompson’s material, particularly the older, well-known novels which helped establish the novelist’s cult reputation. But it wasn’t until 1972 that the tinseltown studios offered a solid commitment to a celluloid rendering of a Thompson novel.

Film director Sam Peckinpah enlisted Thompson’s help in adapting The Getaway into a workable movie screenplay. But the results were not satisfactory in Peckinpah’s mind and he unceremoniously fired Thompson, replacing him with rookie screenwriter, Walter Hill. Hill, of course, went on to become a notable director himself, responsible for such films as The Driver, Long Riders and 48 Hours.

The film, starring Steve McQueen as Doc McCoy and Ali MaGraw as his wife, Carol, was successful but Thompson was not credited as a screenplay contributor when it opened at the Box Office in 1972.

During the early seventies, Thompson continued to write but with only moderate success. A novel he had been working on during the late 60s provisionally entitled White Mother, Black Son, eventually appeared in 1972 as Child Of Rage. It comes across as a desperate novel by a man eager to please and appeal to all and sundry. It juggles many contemporary issues, attempting to blend such disparate themes as the permissive society, racial awareness, the Vietnam war, student demonstrations and police brutality in an unworkable cocktail that is part satire and part melodrama. Another book that Thompson worked on in the seventies was published posthumously in 1987 as The Rip-Off. Thompson, who was suffering from cataract trouble at the time, said of this book: "I think it could have been better if I could see what I was doing."

Two years before his death, in 1975, fate gave Jim Thompson a much-needed filip. He was asked by the Hollywood film director, Dick Richards, to appear in the third film version of Raymond Chandler’s classic novel, Farewell My Lovely. The film starred Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe. Thompson, chosen by director Richards because he exuded a "Southern, aristocratic quality" (Richards was also a fervent Thompson aficianado, probably the real reason for his casting of the writer), played the minor role of Judge Baxter Grayle. Thompson, a long-time movie fan, enjoyed the experience and gave a convincing performance but perhaps more importantly, his screen appearance entitled him to free medical coverage through the Screen Actors’ Guild. It was fortunate that Thompson had this medical cover: in the months that followed, his health would deteriorate rapidly as stroke after stroke afflicted him.

After several traumatic hospitalisations, Thompson begged his wife never to put him in hospital again. Feeble and ailing, he was cared for at home. Haunted by the sobering thought that his writing days were at an end, Jim Thompson, by then being spoon fed by his family, refused to let nourishment pass his lips. Although he continued to smoke heavily, even alcohol’s hold over him palpably weakened as he faded into a seventy-five-pound shadow of his former self.

Jim Thompson died on Thursday April 7th, 1977. The literary legacy he left behind was, sadly, not appreciated in his own time, though the novelist was confident of posthumous fame, as he told his wife just prior to his death: "Just you wait. I’ll be famous after I’m dead about ten years."

And he was right: eventually, the world would catch up with the tenebrous, nightmare world of Jim Thompson and come face to face with the tortured psyche responsible for an infernal vision of humanity. It was a vision that many of his contemporaries could not share or comprehend.

But today, almost fifty years on from The Killer Inside Me, Thompson’s world is not alien to modern-day readers. After all, we live in a sensational tabloid world populated by serial killers and the real life dramas of depraved men and women afflicted by morbid sexual malaise. When Thompson was at his peak in the mid-1950s, little did his readers suspect that he was offering them a glimpse into the future…

A WHITE-KNUCKLE RIDE TO HELL:

JIM THOMPSON’S FICTION

Jim Thompson created a fictional world which was the dark flipside to this one. As novel after novel reveals, the universe according to Thompson is the literary equivalent of a photographic negative: we see the outlines of people and places but even familiar images are rendered unrecognisable in Thompson’s bleak dystopian vision. Nothing is ever as it seems: mothers become lovers (The Grifters) and ultimately, lawmen become killers (The Killer Inside Me and Pop.1280). No longer is the first person narrator (the character that the reader traditionally identifies with) the omniscient hero whose virtue resolves matters harmoniously at the end: no, for in Thompson’s inverted world, the reader sees and feels through the eyes of predatory killers and hapless, benighted losers propelled by circumstances into criminal activity. Thompson’s characters go out with a loud, unholy bang rather than a saintly whimper!

The "heroes" in Thompson’s fiction are those generally discarded by literature and the crime-fiction genre: itinerant roughnecks, downtrodden salesman, grifters down on their luck looking for that elusive big break, ingratiating hotel bellboys and dodgy, conniving businessmen. His books are populated by outsiders, alcoholics, sexual predators and losers: violent psychopaths, megalomaniac lawmen, pneumatic bottle-dyed blondes and, of course, guileless innocents led like lambs to a ritual slaughter.

Almost without fail, Thompson’s principal protagonists are disenchanted with the world and situation they find themselves in: more often than not, the big chip they have on their shoulders has mutated into a distrustful paranoia. Consequently, they protect themselves by being armed with a foul-mouthed cynicism and a sadistic brutality. Often, these unsavoury tendencies have been engendered by events in their past, including childhood traumas (Thompson very often had a cogent psychological basis for his characters’ motives). We discover that Lou Ford, for example, perhaps Thompson’s most chillingly compelling creation (in The Killer Inside Me) was abused as a child – Thompson doesn’t excuse Ford’s predilection for violence but he gives reasonable justification of its cause.

Mostly, Thompson depicts smalltown America: out-of-the-way backwoods places that epitomise Hicksville USA. The town’s inhabitants are often petty-minded and insular: relationships are incestuous and everyone seems to know what everyone else is doing.

Although sex and money prove the fatal attractions in Thompson’s fiction, lies and deception form the main thematic fabric of his work: dense layers of subterfuge lead to yet more prevarication and double-crossing. The resulting twists and teasing turns of Thompson’s plots accelerate on a wild, wicked and sometimes wacky, trajectory towards annihilation. Indeed, first person narrators in the shape of Lou Ford, Carl Bigga (Savage Night), "Dolly" Dillon (A Hell Of A Woman) and "Kid" Collins (After Dark, My Sweet) all come a cropper in the end, sharing their experience of death with the reader in a final explosive denouement.

There’s a hypnotic, incantatory quality about many of the claustrophobic first person monologues that characterise books like Nothing More Than Murder, The Killer Inside Me and Pop.1280. Thompson allows the reader to get inside the heads of characters like Lou Ford and experience the warped criminal mind with all its jaundiced thoughts. The sensation is unforgettable, and for some readers, proves a disturbing experience that they will not want to repeat.

Coupled with Thompson’s psychological probing is the novelist’s penchant for supplying the reader with technical data regarding some of his character’s occupations: in Nothing More Than Murder, Thompson’s main protagonist, Joe Wilmot, gives the reader an insight into running movie houses in the 1940s, while Dolly Dillon (in A Hell Of A Woman) gives the lowdown on door-to-door salesmanship along with how profitable scams can be achieved. This information invests Thompson’s books with a verisimilitude that gives a grounding to the often hellish, unearthly events that occur alongside these prosaic facts.

It is often forgotten (or simply not acknowledged) that Jim Thompson was a structural innovator in crime fiction: he pioneered a split-narrative structure in the final pages of A Hell Of A Woman while The Criminal and The Kill-Off both have multiple narrators.

Perhaps the most compelling feature of Jim Thompson’s novels is his prose style: at its best, Thompson’s writing is spare, laconic and hits home with a visceral intensity.

But not everything Thompson wrote was touched by genius. Only ten of the twenty seven novels he wrote can truly be decried as classic: there are even times when Thompson can seem like the worst writer you’ve ever encountered, and yet, on other occasions you may feel that he is the only writer you should read. One thing’s for sure: Jim Thompson is never dull.

Finally, a word of warning: Jim Thompson depicts a savage, dog-eat-dog world. Entering his books is like buying a one-way ticket to hell.

THE CLASSICS

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

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)

Novelisations:

Ironside (1967)

The Undefeated (1969)

Nothing But A Man (1970)

Screenplays:

The Killing (with Stanley Kubrick)

Paths To Glory (with Stanley Kubrick and Calder Willingham)

Filmed Versions of Thompson Books:

The Getaway (1972)

The Killer Inside Me (1975)

Serie Noire (1978) (a French adaptation of A Hell Of A Woman)

Coup De Torchon (1981) (a French version of Pop.1280)

The Kill-Off (1989)

The Grifters (1990)

After Dark, My Sweet (1990)

The Getaway (1994)

This World Then The Fireworks (1997) (an adaptation of a short story)

Sources:

John Baxter – Stanley Kubrick: A Biography HarperCollins 1997

{Image4} Robert Polito – Savage Art: A Biography Of Jim Thompson Vintage 1996

(This superlative book is highly recommended!)

In the UK, Picador’s Omnibus editions of Thompson’s novels (two volumes containing nine books in all) are highly recommended.

Many other individual Thompson titles are now available through the Vintage Press (although these are American, they can usually be found in good bookstores).

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Sign up for the Crime Time Newsletter and let us update you on everything new in the world of crime fiction!

Thanks for subscribing to the Crime Time Newsletter - check your emails to confirm your subscription!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This