Originally Published 1964
Nick Corey is a terrible sheriff on purpose. He doesn’t solve problems, enforce rules or arrest criminals. He knows that nobody in tiny Potts County actually wants to follow the law and he is perfectly content lazing about, eating five meals a day, and sleeping with all the eligible women.
Still, Nick has some very complex problems to deal with. Two local pimps have been sassing him, ruining his already tattered reputation. His girlfriend Rose is being terrorized by her husband. And then, there’s his wife and her brother Lenny who won’t stop troubling Nick’s already stressed mind. Are they a little too close for a brother and a sister?
With an election coming up, Nick needs to fix his problems and fast. Because the one thing Nick does know is that he will do anything to stay sheriff. Because, as it turns out, Sheriff Nick Corey is not nearly as dumb as he seems.
Pop. 1280 is my first encounter with Jim Thompson, a prolific author of hardboiled crime fiction best known for writing The Killer Inside Me. I had previously learned about him as part of a lecture about violence and crime fiction in the Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction lecture series and was even more intrigued when I saw JJ had listed him as one of his Kings of Crime.
The novel’s protagonist is Nick Corey, a corrupt and lazy sheriff in a tiny county in rural Texas. His days are spent taking bribes, eating and drinking at the various establishments in the town and sleeping with the town’s single (and some not so single) women.
He has some problems though that threaten his chances of keeping this job and the comfortable living that comes with it. For one thing, he is being publicly disrespected by two pimps at the local brothel. With a tough reelection fight looming he wants to stamp this out before it can do more damage to his public persona. And then there’s his complicated love life…
Pop. 1280 follows Nick as he attempts to straighten out some of these problems, indulge his appetites and ensure his reelection to the only job he feels suited for. While he appears to be quite a simple, corny kind of guy who tries to avoid taking any firm positions, we soon learn that he gives far more thought to what he does than it appears as he commits murder and manipulates another character into claiming responsibility for it. Crucially we are not told what he intends and so his actions often seem irrational or counterproductive, only for the reason for them to become clear after the fact.
Not every aspect of the story falls within Nick’s control however and he spends significant chunks of the novel responding to problems instigated by other characters. This gives the story a meandering, unpredictable quality as we see him find opportunities in situations that seem quite undesirable, showing his quick mind and talent for manipulation.
Thompson’s story drives home a deeply pessimistic view of humanity in which no one wants to obey the law themselves but wants to see others subjected to it. Nick reflects that what this amounts to is that the influential folk want to be left alone and to see him pick on the town’s black and poor white population instead and what we see confirms it. Almost all of the supporting characters are shown to be in some way corrupt, greedy and selfish and several of his victims seem to quite deserve their fates, usually falling into them because of their own moral compromises and instincts.
There are some very strong satirical moments in the story and it should be said that as dark as the subject matter can be, it is often very amusing. Nick’s habit of responding to criticism with a folksy saying works throughout the novel while his amorous misadventures place him in some truly ridiculous situations. These sorts of comedic moments keep the overall feel of the piece quite light and give a good sense of balance to the novel as a whole.
The three central women in Nick’s life are also all quite intriguing and varied figures, each feeling quite fleshed out if far from sympathetically. I do not want to spoil the way each is developed and used in the story but I think they all have an interesting journey with that of Rose, his wife’s best friend whose husband is abusive, being the most striking. That storyline takes several unpredictable turns and incorporates several of the novel’s most shocking moments.
Thompson cultivates a feeling of shock and dismay on the part of the reader right the way through the novel, routinely exposing characters’ vices and cruelties. Readers should expect to find considerable, casual use of a racial epithet by pretty well every character in the book which, while not pleasant, is authentic to the time and setting.
Nick is not a nice man, nor can he really be elevated to the status of anti-hero. He is a villain who does some truly cruel things but because the people he targets are often more loathsome than him readers may well enjoy seeing him pull off his plans. While he seems to obfuscate and lie at points in his narrative, he can also be quite straightforward in admitting to exactly who and what he is. For that reason when he explains himself at the end of the novel it doesn’t come as a shock but rather it is the logical conclusion to what we have observed throughout the story.
It is surprising that although the book touches on some truly dark themes Thompson is pretty restrained in his use of violence. The threat of it and our knowledge that it is happening is always there but there are relatively few moments in which we see it explicitly described. This contrasted with the image I had of Thompson’s style and I will be interested to see whether that is true of his other novels.
It should be said that while this is a crime story that this is not a mystery. There is nothing here for the reader to detect or deduce other than what exactly Nick has planned and his motive, both of which are spelled out early in the book.
Rather Pop. 1280 is both a character study of a killer and an exploration of the human propensity towards selfishness, greed and hatred. Stephen Marche described it as ‘a romp through a world of nearly infinite deceit’ and while I don’t have enough knowledge of the author’s work to be able to agree with his assessment that it is the author’s true masterpiece, I would certainly say it is a compelling, cynical read that manages to shock, appall and amuse in fairly equal measures.