Jim Thompson : The Killer, or not?

02Sep10

[FR : Si t’aimes les polars, il est impératif de découvrir Jim Thompson, écrivain vachement noir et nihiliste. Je note quelques livres avec des étoiles.]

Jim Thompson, who wrote most of his crime novels in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, is in the news again with the release of a film based on The Killer Inside Me.

I discovered him only recently, but he is one of my favorite writers. At his best, he truly shines. He tells a good story and tells it well, while simultaneously conveying his views on society.

His unvarnished disgust for humankind, his immorality, his nihilism, his desire to provoke with sex, violence, or anything else close at hand, are forerunners of Last Exit to Brooklyn or A Clockwork Orange. Ahead of his time, he lampoons Americans’ hatred of non-whites, progressives, communists, the working class, the poor, unions, women, educated people, and so forth.

Your best bets, out of the 7 novels I’ve read, are:

Pop. 1280 (1964) *** (and absolutely see the film, Coup de torchon (1981) ***)
The Grifters (1963) *** (I have not seen the film (1990))
The Killer Inside Me (1952) ***

I will not waste your time with superlatives. If you don’t like these 3, there is nothing I can do for you.

For the record, here are some minor works of his, with reasons not to read them.

After Dark, My Sweet (1955) **1/2

You may be attracted by the exploitation-style title that has nothing to do with the book. There are some classic Thompson themes: the story is told from the point of view of a mentally-ill guy who gets in far over his head when he meets an evil chick (of course) who wants to take advantage of him to carry out a kidnapping. It’s pretty good, but goes slowly at times. The film was made in 1990.

The Getaway (1959) **

A rather lightweight Bonnie and Clyde on-the-run tale without too much depth or character development; it’s mainly a long chase. Ends with an unexpected, surreal purgatory scene. Not bad, but why not read a better one? I am curious to see the film (1972) starring Steve McQueen.

A Swell-Looking Babe (1954) 1/2*

I saw this one for $3 and bought it by reflex. I did not heed the very important clue on the cover: when the reviewers’ quotes only talk about the writer and do not talk about the book itself, it means that they couldn’t find any positive reviews of the book. Even though it is part of the publisher’s “Crime Masterworks” series, it’s a loser, attempting to combine a sexy chick, the incest theme from The Grifters, the “sickness” theme from The Killer Inside Me, and a gangster story, but winding up rather bland and directionless. I respect that Jim was trying to make his rent and couldn’t always come up with something brilliant. Sorry.

Roughneck (1954) 1/2*

A biography that covers Jim’s life up until 1942, when he published his first novel. It is notable for his tight, clean writing style, and for fans to have some insight on the origins of a man who wrote such amazing nihilist fiction. Basically this is a Grapes of Wrath type story of a guy caught in the Great Depression, and his fight to survive on a daily basis. Each chapter recounts an anecdote. I can imagine that Thompson was unbeatable at cocktail party conversation. But this book is weak compared to his works of fiction.

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One Response to “Jim Thompson : The Killer, or not?”


  1. 1 My Life of Crime « Jon von Zelowitz's blog

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