Psycho Killer
New biography explores the dark world of Jim Thompson, once-forgotten master of spiritual derangement

Savage Art - A Biography of Jim Thompson
by Robert Polito

Alfred A. Knopf 543 pages $30


Writer Jim Thompson in Hollywood Hills, 1975.

I'll be frank I don't know much about American crime fiction. My exposure doesn't go too far beyond Elmore Leonard and Ross Macdonald, and I only know Chandler and Hammett from the movies. So it doesn't mean much when I say that if there is a grimmer, nastier, more merciless artist of the underworld than Jim Thompson, I don't know who he is. But I doubt you do, either.
Thompson worked on the ragged fringes of the writer's trade. He wrote 20 or so el cheapo "paperback originals" with titles like A Hell of a Woman and A Swell-Looking Babe between the late 1940s and the early 1960s; the kind of books marketed in bus stations and drugstores, safe and secure from the literary vanguard.
The cover art was typically sleazy and sinister, and what we now know as "film noir-ish": scowling men with loose ties; leggy, leering hussies; half-empty liquor bottles, half-smoked fags, the occasional corpse.
The books could be typical, too, but the best were anything but. Thompson was a master of the psycho's-eye-view monologue; the world as seen through a killer's warped gaze. The books weren't literary in the usual sense, but they weren't really suited for the bestseller list, either. They were grim, unhappy, often wrenchingly funny books suffused with a hopeless, sickly, sulphurous mood. They made your skin crawl. They were fascinating, and still are.
When the paperback market dried up, Thompson went to Hollywood, where he may or may not have co-written a couple of early Stanley Kubrick movies. He also unhappily witnessed a couple of adaptations of his own books, and briefly appeared in Dick Richards' film Farewell, My Lovely, with Robert Mitchum.
Late in life, Thompson acquired something of a reputation in France, where existential despair never goes out of style. In his own country, his books were long since out of print, and the writer himself was a pathetic old hack awash in booze, bad contracts and poverty. He had a stroke, his eyesight was shot and he had nothing better to do than starve himself to death. No more than 25 people attended his funeral.
"Just you wait," he told his wife, as he lay in bed wasting away. "I'll become famous after I've been dead about 10 years."
He wasn't too far off the mark. The Thompson renaissance which began accumulating in France flowered by the 1980s, when the novels A Hell of a Woman and Pop. 1280 were made into the French films Serie Noire (1979) and Coup de Torchon (1981), respectively; the latter, directed by Bertrand Tavernier, was an excellent adaptation and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
By 1985, Thompson's novels were reissued and, following the lead of R.V. Cassill (who wrote on Thompson as early as 1968), writers like Stephen King and journals like The New York Review of Books, The Village Voice and The New Republic declared Thompson the uncrowned king of the hellish thriller.
Three American films from Thompson books The Grifters, After Dark, My Swee, and The Kill-Off were produced before the decade was out; The Getaway rather unsatisfactorily filmed by Sam Peckinpah in 1972 was unsatisfactorily remade last year.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, Robert Polito and Michael McCauley assembled a couple of Thompson samplers, then went their separate ways to write biographies. McCauley was first out of the gate in 1991 with To Sleep With the Devil. Now Polito weighs in with the one under review.
Thompson's re-emergence is not hard to figure. To begin with, dead writers are cool, especially ones who were unknown in their lifetime. They are seen as martyrs spurned by popular taste and burned at the stake of anonymity. They aren't vulgar; they don't hawk their books on The Today Show or get their pictures in Vanity Fair knocking back drinks with Norman Mailer.
But there's something else going on with Thompson. He has continued to stay in vogue. His books stay in print, there's a t-shirt in his honor, and the word "Thompsonian" has appeared in the occasional review.
So what's the big deal? Possibly he was simply ahead of his time; the cracked, free-verse self-absorption you hear in his crazed narrators prefigures the Age of Punk. He's the perfect ghost for an age more violent and nihilistic than his own.
Which is not to say that Thompson's art, if you want to call it that, wasn't wildly inconsistent. The temptation is strong to write him off as a student of the Quick and Dirty School, where rawness, spontaneity and immediacy take considerable precedence over craft.
But therein lie the seeds of genius, or something like it. His best novels are truly inspired: they start out on familiar, small-town turf and end up in a crazy man's version of the Book of Ezekiel. They are tales told by monsters, and they have a genuine feel for a monster's unhinged world view, where the only moral code is that evil is as evil does. One law for the saved and the damned is oppression.
"The trouble with killing," as Carl Bigelow says in Savage Night, "is that it's so easy. You get to where you almost do it without thinking. You do it instead of thinking."
Like Gilles de Rais, the satanic 13th-Century child killer who appears in J.K. Huysmans' La Bas, the derangement of Thompson's killers "does not remain merely carnal; it becomes spiritual." Hell, which is where the books frequently end up, is seen as a haven of rest.
"I reckon that's all," says Lou Ford at the end of The Killer Inside Me, as he and his pursuers are blown to kingdom come, "unless our kind gets another chance in the Next Place."
Savage Night's Bigelow, an insecure hit man who compensates for his diminutive height with tough talk, waits out the end at a Vermont goat farm that is landscaped with vaginal topiary. It is here that his presumed lover will hack him to pieces, until all that's left suck on this, William Faulkner is his puny inexhaustible voice, sputtering a series of chapters that, like Carl, gradually diminish in size.
Frank Dillon in A Hell of a Woman (Thompson's true magnum opus) has it equally bad as he sees it, his whole life has been squandered on one bitch after another, so much so that all women become a blur. But just as they are crowding into one person, Frank is turning into two; halfway through the book he creates a new persona, and by the end he's talking out of both sides of his mouth.
The text splits into lines of alternating type, so that we actually read two stories at once, both of which end with Frank getting desexed. (It's the literary equivalent of what the Velvet Underground would do years later with their song "The Murder Mystery," which makes the left and right stereo speakers sound like they're arguing.)
The Getaway is such a typical bank robbery story that it's twice been made into a typical action movie. But no movie yet has had the guts to follow the story through to its end, where Doc and Carol McCoy evade their pursuers by taking an underground journey through mud, shit and flies to an island of lost souls, where the objective is to arrange your own death.
You tell yourself it is a bad dream. You tell yourself you have died you, not the others and have waked up in hell. But you know better. You know better. There is an end to dreams, and there is no end to this.

What was it Robert Frost said about home "the place where when you go there/ They have to take you in"?
Polito finds an early clue to Thompson's sense of dementia. His father, Sheriff James Sherman Thompson, was a public "terror to thieves" and a private terror to his family. Before Thompson was a year old, his fabled lawman dad was on the run, high-tailing it to Mexico after investigators found he had padded his $1,500 salary with some $31,000 in "expenses." He would later gain a small fortune in oil and squander it on living well.
Thompson, according to Polito, was forever ambivalent about his father; he "ennobled the sheriff whenever he invoked him by name and then ridiculed him under other names, like Lou Ford and Nick Corey [the brutal sheriff of Pop. 1280]."
Thompson didn't have to look far for inspiration in other instances either. He got an early start as a drinker by sharing morning toddies with his grandfather; he was hospitalized for alcoholism as early as 17. He worked as a hotel clerk which provided no end of material for Wild Town and The Grifters hoboed, worked in the oil fields, and found encouragement as a writer in a rather curious environment: the University of Nebraska's College of Agriculture.
A steady stream of work for pulps like True Detective followed. During the Depression he signed on with a WPA Program, the Oklahoma Federal Writer's Project, where he wrote, co-wrote or co-edited the usual WPA tour guides and literary collections. (One of his cohorts, whose sentimentality he came to despise, was Louis L'Amour.)
Thompson published some reportedly so-so novels early on, but didn't turn to crime fiction until he was in his forties. He had a lot to say, and a lot to repeat, and he said a lot of it in the space of a year and a half. Between September 1952 and March 1954 he churned out 12 books, including most of the ones on which his reputation will likely rest.
Polito is clearly impassioned by Thompson, but he's reasonable about him: he doesn't forgive Thompson's bad books or try to ennoble him with qualities he never had. He has exhaustively researched every nook and cranny of a writer whose life seems to have mostly existed in the shadows.
He helpfully classes the different types of books Thompson wrote, and closely analyzes the dispute over Thompson's screen credit for Kubrick's The Killing and Paths of Glory. (Kubrick, no surprise, comes off as a first-class prick). Polito has performed a considerable service in telling Thompson's readers a great deal about a man of whom we have heretofore known so little.
Sometimes the details can get tedious. There is a depressing, if possibly unavoidable, attention paid to Thompson's drinking. The story occasionally moves in fits and starts, and Polito's writing style, at times, gets ponderous.
One wonders what a meat-and-potatoes man like Thompson would have made of lines like: "Bara's brooding sensual face, kohl-ringed eyes, and slinky chiaroscuro of pale arms and dark silks forged an imago of opulent evil at the crossroads of sex and destruction, eros and thanatos."
Or: "Despite Thompson's equivocation and hazy self-pity, the enduring ichor from these early wounds blisters the gloss of retrospective tact."
Such lapses are rare, fortunately. As rediscovered dead writers go, Jim Thompson was the Jane Austen of the 1980s and this book could well extend his posthumous 15 minutes indefinitely.

Rodney Welch frequently writes film and book reviews for POINT.

Jim Thompson is a perfect ghost for an age more violent and nihilistic than his own.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 2/15/95