Going into this post, I am not sure how many novels this will include. But I will review each of them in turn. My audiobook service has a bunch of his novels, and I am about the move and they are so light and short, it could be a lot.
But I am starting with….
The Grifters – 1963 – 3 Stars
Yes, this is the one the movie is based on. But I guess since that movie came out in 1990, who knows what it’s cachet is right now. This is an LA noir, and that’s a kind of special LA. Early on, the narrator describes LA as a kind of perfect grifting town because it’s a lot of little towns in one county with no real public transportation (we understand why that is since we’ve all seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), so there’s less of a chance of constantly running into people. This use of traffic, the spread of the valley, and all the different physical features is such an LA noir trope, and we’re all the better off for it.
The novel circulates around the uncomfortable relationship between a man in his mid-twenties and his mother in her late 30s, a dynamic I am not sure the movie quite captures. Would it not work for the man or any man to confuse his mother for his (slightly older) lover, this novel wouldn’t work. Something I will also say about this novel is that while their are twists and turns (not as many as perhaps you might imagine), that the focus remains on the motivations of the characters and not the plot. I think that is a real strength of the few Jim Thompson novels I have read so far.
The Second novel is….
The Killer Inside Me (1952) – 3 Stars
I was worried this one would simply be a misanthropic romp into the mind of a killer. Not that far off from stories like “Diary of a Madman,” this story really had the possibility of being something like “insanity porn”…that is living it up in the mind of an insane man, but not really trying to make sense of that state of being.
Instead, it’s more like a precursor to Dexter. In this novel, Lou Ford is a sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town. It feels like the novel is about to be a study in fascistic violence and control over the town, but really it’s about an affable youngish man who lives behind that mask as a psychopathic killer holding back his “sickness” all the time, but barely keeping it in control. He doesn’t have the system like Dexter does, and so his killing is a little more random or impulsive, but like Dexter, his affability is off-putting and gives him the air of being a moron. There’s those who don’t trust him, but those voices are controllable. And like any good psychopath, he’s willing and able to safe himself over and over and over again when needed. It ends with a final descent (as you could guess) and now looks and feels like American Psycho. And so I would argue that Jim Thompson becomes a kind Velvet Underground for American crime fiction.
And finally for this post (there’s literally like 12 more available on my service)….
Pop 1280 (19 ) 4 Stars
This is the best of this bunch. I liked this one a lot. Similar to Lou Ford in the above novel (really these characters are versions of same person), Nick Corey is walking breathing ID. He also hides behind a mask of decency and pablum, but unlike Lou Ford, he doesn’t have the excuse of a sickness eating him out from the inside. Instead, he’s the logical extension of every bad habit and bad feeling an American everyman could have. He’s married an awful harridan, Myra, who he tried to fuck at a fair, but she screamed rape (he’s the narrator of this one, and I am merely trying to grasp the voice and tone), so he married her. This messed up his engagement with Amy, who he really loves! But that’s ok, he also shacks up with Rose, his wife’s severe best friend who’s in an abusive relationship with Tom.
It all starts off with two pimps (who he sees in order to take graft), who give him shit on his rounds. When he tells his story to neighboring Sheriffs, they convince him he’s a sap and need to hit them back hard (they do this by illustratively kicking him in the ass multiple times). So he shoots the pimps and implicates the other sheriff in the murder. Then he starts planting stories about his political opponent in the minds of voters. He tries to reignite his love with Amy, at the cost of Rose and Myra.
This is a weird novel where no one is good, but we’re fully on the side of the protagonist. He’s always somehow the least bad in a word full of truly terrible people. However, he also becomes emblematic in so much recognizeable behavior alongside all the not so recognizeable behavior.