Jim Thompson is a crime writer with a knack for peering into the blackness of the human soul and not flinching in describing it to the reader. He’s probably best known as the writer of The Grifters, which was turned into a movie starring John Cusack and Anjelica Huston. There the focus was on con artists, criminals who rely on their cunning and their wits to stay ahead of the law. On the surface, The Criminal couldn’t be more different: the title character is a fifteen year-old boy named Bob Talbert who is easily confused and not very bright. The crime he stands accused of is a brutal one: the murder of a girl his age he was known to be spending time with.
Thompson uses this ghastly crime to explore not the criminal mind, but the pervasiveness of evil in human beings and by extension, all human institutions. At first the murder attracts little attention. As tragic as it is, there are good reasons to believe Bob didn’t commit the murder (though he did have sex with the victim on the day it happened) and that even if he did it was probably an accident for which he, as a minor, can only be held so responsible. The case might have slipped away without a trace except for a newspaper owner desperate to drive up circulation.
The newspaper owner, known to the reader only as The Captain, doesn’t care about Bob’s guilt or innocence, he just wants to sell newspapers. He decides to play up Bob’s case into a frenzy and get ahead of the competition at the same time. He pressures his managing editor, who in turn puts his most expert reporter on the trail.
It’s not just the fourth estate that is the target for Thompson’s ire. As the case winds along, Thompson introduced into the narrative crooked lawyers, ambitious local politicians, business owneers, and even Bob’s parents, who harbor doubts about their son going much further back than the murder. Regrettably, a section told from the point of view of a poor, black witness is written in dialect that should have been offensive at the date of publication and currently is now. There is a considerable amount of sexism too.
The Criminal is a fairly effective look at the imbalances in the criminal justice system , as it plumbs the human failings that render a perfectly-designed system the ultimate power. Ultimately, Thompson does something effective by refusing to show the reader whether Bob really “done it” or not. The focus is not on the dead body but on the dying society