Originally Published 1955
William “Kid” Collins was once a respected boxer. Now he’s a drifter, on the run after escaping from a mental institution.
One afternoon he meets Fay, a beautiful young widow. She is smart and decent — at least when she’s sober. Soon Collins finds himself involved in a kidnapping scheme that goes drastically wrong almost before it even begins. Because the kid they’ve picked up isn’t like other kids: he’s diabetic and without insulin, he’ll die. Not the safest situation for Collins, a man for whom stress and violence have long gone hand-in-hand.
The inspiration to tackle the subject of today’s post came from JJ who I credit as the blogger who first turned me onto the works of Jim Thompson. In the comments section of my Nothing More Than Murder review he suggested that I should make this an early read and because he is a man who knows (and rates) his Thompson, I knew well enough to listen to him.
The story concerns a drifter, William Collins, who has recently been released from a mental institution. He is in a bar one afternoon when he meets Fay, a widow with a drinking problem whose attitudes toward him seem to shift unpredictably.
She introduces him to a man she calls Uncle Bud who has a plan that he believes will make them all rich. They will kidnap the son of a wealthy family and ransom him back to them. It seems a simple enough idea and Bud assures them that he will be able to leverage his contacts on the force to help them stay ahead of the law. But then everything begins to go wrong when the boy gets sick…
One of the things that I have found most exciting about Thompson’s writing is his ability to create compelling and complex characters to narrate his stories. Sometimes they appear on the face of things to be quite simple or straightforward and yet I think the reader is always aware that because the stories are being told in that character’s voice, things may not be quite as they appear.
Collie, as William Collins prefers to be known, is a great case in point. We recognize from early on that he is potentially quite a dangerous man. He is self-aware enough to know that he needs help but risks falling into difficult situations by being unable to read others well. He can be quite sensitive, being quick to anger when he feels he has become the butt of a joke or is being treated unfairly, but there is also a sense that he would like to find a place where he can fit in and be comfortable.
He is not a particularly likeable character, clearly being quite unstable and capable of violence, though he can come off favorably in comparison with the company he keeps. Fay is a mean drunk and cuts a rather sad figure, though I could understand why Collie was drawn to her. It is clear that he doesn’t entirely understand what she is thinking or planning but I think we are given enough information to make our own judgments of her character and get a sense as to where she is headed.
The star of the show for me however was Uncle Bud, the man who plans this misguided operation. Some crime stories feature fantastically complicated plots with multiple moving pieces involved but Bud’s plan is really quite simple. He is confident, in part because of his aforementioned ties to the police force, but also because he thinks he is the smartest person in the room.
Thompson creates a fascinating power struggle between Collie and Bud as the two men wrestle to take hold of the situation when things begin to turn bad. They clash over several aspects of the plan and it is clear that they do not trust each other and have different visions of how their situation will end, setting things up for a pretty explosive conclusion.
The dynamics between these three conspirators is what drives the novel forward and provides the chief source of interest rather than the plot itself which is, in contrast, relatively simple. In fact you might say that the story contains remarkably little incident. Instead the bulk of the book focuses on the way those few incidents affect the relationships between the characters and cause them to change the way they are interacting.
It makes for pretty compelling reading, particularly once we get a solid handle on what the nature of the conflict between the characters will end up being. Thompson does a splendid job of creating different, distinct points of contention and suspicion between the three characters, setting up a situation where it seems disaster is imminent.
There are no great shocks, even in the resolution, but the writing has a wonderfully direct quality that just drew me in and fascinated me. The ending works because it feels earned and properly hinted at in various points throughout the novel. It perhaps isn’t quite as striking or appalling as Pop. 1280, my favorite of the three Thompsons I have read so far, but I enjoyed it enormously and feel pretty comfortable saying I liked it more than Nothing More Than Murder.