Saturday, July 14, 2012

In Praise of Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson was an American writer whose career peaked in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Some critics have called him the hardest of the hard boiled and noir authors.  In my opinion, from a technical standpoint, he was probably the best American writer of the twentieth century.

I remember reading my first novel by Thompson called The Kill Off. Though I didn't like the story's characters, his ability to write this book was a tour de force. Each chapter is narrated by a different character in the novel. Reading the book, I was in awe at the flexibility with which he did this.

Other books by Thompson, such as The Killer Inside Me and Savage Night, are fascinating and full of humor. The story After Dark my Sweet, again in my opinion, may be one of the best American novels ever written.

In Savage Night, a hired killer moves into a rooming house so that he can murder a Federal  witness. Called Little Bigger, he's having an affair both with someone's wife, and also with her maid at the same time. Soon he suspects one of them was sent by "the Man", his gangster boss -

"Of course I could ask the Man about her. But then the Man would just put his arm around me, give a big smile, and tell me not to worry. And in a half hour I'd be dead."

From the Killer Inside Me, we see the mind of a psychopathic, crooked  deputy sheriff in a small Texas town. Likewise, in After Dark my Sweet, the story is narrated by an ex prize fighter who has just escaped from a mental institution.

Besides some of these books being made into films in Europe, particularly France, several of Thompson's novels were turned into movies by big American studios. The most memorable being The Grifters, and The Getaway, which was done superbly two times.

Thompson's career was just as fascinating as the stories he wrote. In fact, many of his novels were based on episodes in his life,  and many times a form of revenge for what happened to him. Committed to an alcoholic sanitarium, he later did a book about an abusive nurse in an alcoholic sanitarium. Once a bellboy in a sleazy hotel on the Mexican border, as an adult Thomson  wrote  a book about a bellboy in a shady hotel who gets involved with gangsters. Appropriately, the novel's called  A Swell Looking Babe.

Thompson worked for at least two large newspapers and a scandal sheet in Los Angeles. From this milieu., he composed a novel  titled The Nothing Man, about an editor who doesn't have a penis. Judge, by this, his experience as a newsman. ( Incidentally, when I mentioned this book to a bunch of elderly  Japanese ladies, they all started giggling and insisted I write down the title and author's name. )

But this is just the tip of Thompson's colorful life. Ten years before the McCarthy Red Scare, he managed to get himself investigated by the House on Un-American activities in the early 1940s, and later was committed to a mental institution, from which he took out his revenge in After Dark My Sweet.

Yes Jim Thompson certainly had a very fascinating life, and a career with many good books which will keep him living forever.

Too bad he didn't write his own autobiography. It would have been very entertaining .

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