Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

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.

14 thoughts on “Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

  1. Delighted to see that you enjoyed this one — Thompson is rarely an easy read (something like The Killer inside Me is staggering in how difficult it is to pull your eyes away) but there’s always a richness and a vibrancy to his characters and their relationships. It is a masterpiece, though by no means the only one he wrote, and I think he’d be pretty happy with the assessment “shock, appall and amuse in fairly equal measures.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had this image of Thompson as being an excessive sort of writer and I think what pleased me most was how restrained he is. It makes the piece feel balanced and allows him to write satirically while still grounding them in a sense of reality. I was really impressed and when I went back to read your Kings of Crime post I was happy to see we both felt similarly about this one.

      I am really looking forward to reading some more of his work. I expect I will try and read several others before tackling Killer Inside Me but quite a few of these will be added to my TBR pile soon.


  2. I liked this more than The Killer Inside Me. Those are the best of the several JTs I’ve read.
    His strengths you have noted. A weakness is contrived plotting and over egging the pudding.

    Numerous JT movies. The Getaway with McQueen is the most famous, but far from the best. The Grifters, script by Westlake is my pick, and The Killing, directed by Kubrick. Both worth seeking out. He worked on Paths of Glory, which is Kubrick’s best movie, but not remotely a noir. Inside Me has been filmed twice, neither quite satisfactorily.

    There are other good Southern Noir writers. Charles Willeford and Charles Williams especially.
    I have not read a David Goodis yet, but he is another big name from the Fawcett paperback originals. The 600 pound gorillas from that era are John D MacDonald and Donald Westlake aka Richard Stark. I love Westlake/Stark. I recommend you try JDM, some love him, but not I.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for the recommendations. I tried some Stark a few years back when they were last reissued but think I would appreciate them more today. They are on the list to try again.

      I will make a note of the other names you suggest and make a point to seek some out. As for JT, I plan on reading some of the lesser works before tackling The Killer Inside Me. I will keep an eye out for the movies you recommend too!


  3. The high point of Jim Thompson’s career was the period in the 50s when he wrote paperback originals for Lion Books, including his most popular novel, The Killer Inside Me. Not everything he wrote during that period was masterpiece, but all of it was at least interesting. Pop. 1280, written about a decade later, was Thompson’s last hurrah, for me – a brief return to the form he’d shown during that Lion period before he descended into the mediocrity of his final years.

    I once read a biography of Thompson that showed the last page of the original Pop. 1280 manuscript. After the last line as it appears in the published book, he added one more paragraph, which he (or an editor?) later crossed out. I always wished it had been in the final version. As i recall, it went like this:

    “I whirled, drawing my gun. We both fired at the same time.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting to read your thoughts on his career. I will aim to pick my next Thompson from that 50s era – do you have any particular recommendations other than The Killer Inside Me?


      1. A very interesting question! Try A Swell-Looking Babe, The Criminal or The Alcoholics… that last one isn’t really a crime novel, but there is some crime in it, and it’s a fun read. Some of his other “Lion Period” books are more experimental and I would recommend you read Killer at least before you go on to them (Savage Night, Nothing Man, A Hell of a Woman). Robert Politio’s biography of Thompson, Savage Art, has a good analysis of all his books from this half-decade.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Thanks so much for those suggestions. I was happy to see several titles I have access to listed so that gives me somewhere to start before I tackle Killer.


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