“Hacks,” Wilfrid Sheed wrote in a 1973 essay on genre writers, “never enter literature in the middle. They can only come in as geniuses.” With the release of Michael Winterbottom’s version of The Killer Inside Me, it’s time once again for the claims for Jim Thompson’s genius to be dusted up and placed before us. “Dimestore Dostoyevsky” (a phrase coined by critic Geoffrey O’Brien) and “Firesale Faulkner” are just two of the most popular epithets.
Jim Thompson was indeed a hack, though whether or not he was a legitimate genre writer is open to debate. He turned to crime fiction in middle age only after the commercial failure of his more “serious” novels. And he seems to have neither known, nor cared for, most of the conventions of the crime novel genre—he was one of the few to write about murder from the point of view of the criminal rather than that of the detective or lawman (though several of his most famous killers were lawmen).
No other pulp writer, not even Mickey Spillane, will give you the feeling that when you put his books down you need to wash your hands with antibacterial soap.
Virtually everything he is known for today was published between The Killer Inside Me in 1952 and Pop. 1280 in 1964, all in paperback editions found on dime store bookracks that cost in the range of 25 to 50 cents. His novels aren’t mysteries and have little to do with what is found in most thrillers; they are all short and poorly plotted. (His editor, Arnold Hano, told me in an interview last week that Thompson picked the plot for The Killer Inside Me from a list of synopses.)
Once you start reading them, as I just did for the second time in 25 years, you can’t stop until you’ve gone through at least nine or 10, and if you read them late at night, as I did, you’ll fall asleep with images of neon signs throbbing on and off in your brain and the taste of stale cigarettes and bad whiskey in your mouth even if the last thing you drank was diet green tea. It doesn’t exactly come as a shock to learn that Thompson didn’t so much write out of rage as alcohol-induced self-pity. In the middle of one of his best novels, Savage Night, his narrator, a professional killer, thumbs a ride from an alcoholic writer who confesses to dealing in pornography. He’s the author’s self-portrait.
Thompson’s world, even in the books he wrote in the early 1960s, is a neverending depression, and even the novels set in the Deep South, California, or upstate New York suggest the blighted landscape of the Oklahoma where he grew up. No other pulp writer, not even Mickey Spillane, will give you the feeling that when you put his books down you need to wash your hands with antibacterial soap.
This resurgence is Thompson’s second go-around in the U.S. The first was spurred by the reissue of several of his best-known titles (including After Dark, My Sweet, Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, Pop. 1280, The Grifters, and The Getaway) in the mid-1980s followed by a spate of films, three released in 1990.
In France, though, his stature has been unquestioned since before his death in 1977. (When he died, all of his titles were out of print in this country.) Some French critics had long since decided that Thompson was, at the least, Faulkner’s equal, an extravagance that we can perhaps forgive since, after all, they also revived Faulkner’s reputation when his books were out of print here.
Of course, some of the people who think Thompson was a genius are themselves hacks. Stephen King, for instance, who thought, “He was crazy. He went running into the American subconscious with a blowtorch in one hand and a pistol in the other, screaming his goddamned head off. ” No, he wasn’t, and no, he didn’t.
Thompson’s killers are sly and introspective—most of the books are told in the first person—and curious about their own propensity for mayhem. His small-town sheriff Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me muses that, “It was funny the way these people kept asking for it. Just latching on to you, no matter how you tried to brush them off, and almost telling you how they wanted it done. Why’d they all have to come to me to get killed? Why couldn’t they kill themselves?”
This isn’t the sound of someone screaming his head off, it’s something much more chilling. It’s King’s characters who run with blowtorches screaming, and unlike most pulp writers, Thompson seems to have read more books than he wrote. He utilized literary techniques light years beyond his pulpish contemporaries, such as a split narrator technique in A Hell of a Woman similar to Faulkner’s in As I Lay Dying (which is probably where he got the idea).
The violence, when it comes, is shocking, more shocking and more convincing than anything in the work of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler (though this does not, in and of itself, make his books superior to theirs, as some of Thompson’s advocates claim). In fact, it’s more shocking than anything in American literature outside Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Thompson’s violence jolts because it isn’t sanitized, as it is in nearly all other pulp fiction; Chandler wrote that Hammett “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Thompson gave murder to people who commit it on impulse, for reasons they can’t understand.
Thompson’s influence on recent crime fiction is profound, including James Ellroy and even Cormac McCarthy, whose No Country for Old Men, despite its high-falutin’ title from Yeats, is Jim Thompson with an existential oil slick. He has left his mark on film, too, most obviously on the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, and even on mainstream directors like James Mangold, whose first big feature, Cop Land (1997), paid Thompson visible homage: The billboard leading into the town where the corrupt police live reads “Pop. 1280.”
Yet Thompson’s books remain pretty much a trap that filmmakers fall into while grabbing for the carrot on a stick, i.e. the juicy, overripe dialogue and the narrator’s lurid descriptions of violent scenes. A problem that even the greatest filmmakers have never been entirely able to solve: How do you translate from page to screen a scene going on in someone’s head?
Casey Affleck is probably the finest actor to ever play a Thompson character; he is capable of suggesting a maelstrom of psychoses with the flick of an eyebrow or a slight modulation of his high-pitched voice. But like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, once you get inside the head of a Thompson character, there’s no there there. In his biography, Savage Art, Robert Polito suggests Thompson’s novels are the closest approximation to snuff films. True, but how many people really want to see snuff films?
Thompson’s work has not gone without success in movies, beginning with his superb script for Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). Among the screen adaptations, Bernard Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, with Isabelle Huppert and Phillipe Noiret, taken from Pop. 1280 and reset in French Equatorial Africa, and Stephen Frears’ The Grifters with John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening are the best. (I’d argue that The Grifters is an even better film than novel.)
But both are more tasteful than Thompson’s source material, and, which is probably why neither has been particularly embraced by Thompson fans. It may be, in the end, that undiluted Thompson is unfilmable. Walter Hill, himself a noted director of crime films, worked on the script for Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), the biggest hit taken from a Thompson book, but the one least reflective of its author. I talked to him about it a few years ago, and his explanation for Jim Thompson’s failure to translate to the movies should stand: “You’re talking about a guy who opened a door into the mind of pathological, paranoid criminals. This isn’t a perspective that’s ever going to appeal to mainstream American moviegoers.”
It’s hard to blame moviegoers for not accepting Thompson’s vision. At least on the printed page you don’t have to look away.
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.