Originally published in 1957.
Luane Devore’s days are numbered. All her neighbors in the declining seaside resort town of Manduwoc want her dead. Some, like her young husband Ralph and his girlfriend Danny, want the thousands of dollars she keeps hidden under the mattress she spends her days resting on. Others want her to stop her malicious gossip–some of which could ruin lives.
Told from multiple perspectives, The Kill-Off tells the story of a woman not long for this earth–but who will finally take matters into their own hands, and when?
First, a warning: I will not directly name the killer in my comments below and yet there is no way I can avoid hinting pretty strongly at their identity if I am to discuss the book in any meaningful way. While I think the whodunnit aspect of this book doesn’t really work for reasons I’ll describe below, those seeking to preserve its secrets should probably skip reading the below or jump to the final paragraphs.
The Kill-Off explores the circumstances surrounding the murder of Luane Devore, a woman who nearly everyone in the seaside town of Manduwoc wants dead. The reasons vary but generally fall into one of two categories – they may either hope to gain a little of what is left of her crumbling estate or they have been hurt by her habit of spreading rumors and gossip.
Rather than presenting us with a body and working backwards, Thompson employs a slightly different approach. We begin the novel in the knowledge that Luane is destined to die and each successive chapter shows us the events from the perspective of a different member of the community as we work closer to the moment in which she is killed.
The benefit of this approach is that we get to see just how interconnected those stories can be. Chapter-by-chapter we begin to build a picture of the suspects and see how their stories overlap, often learning that their actions have influenced events we witnessed in the previous chapters. This allows Thompson to develop his themes about life in a small community and the secrets people hold, leading to further discussion about sex, race and exploitation and exposing the worst of humanity in the process.
This overlapping stories technique also helps drive home the idea that Luanne’s gossip-mongering can really do some damage in a small town like this, making us all the more aware of the danger that Luanne has put herself in. The problem for the reader to solve is who will be the one to do the deed and what will their ultimate reason be?
Rather unfortunately I think this aspect of the plotting exposes some of the problems with taking this sort of an approach. While you might think that allocating equal space to each possible suspect would result in them seeming equally credible as killers that turns out to be far from the case. Several characters’ stories seem quite shallow and unfold at such a leisurely pace it seems clear that they cannot be the person we are looking for.
I suspect that this reflects that while this may be structured as a whodunnit, Thompson’s real interest is in exploring character and the psychology of a killer. That killer will be easy to spot, particularly for those well-versed in Thompson’s work, because they share several behaviors and interests in common with his more famous killers. Unfortunately while those other books were able to really dig into exploring the psychology of that character, the approach Thompson takes in The Kill-Off and the need to adhere to a whodunnit structure keeps us from spending extended periods of time with any one character and digging deeper.
Though the whodunnit plotting really didn’t work for me, I did still find things to admire in this novel. This begins with the characterization of our victim, Luane, who comes across strongly in just a dozen or so pages.
Luane’s situation somewhat mirrors that of Manduwoc itself. Just as the town seems to be drifting into decay, so she seems to be a stagnant and decaying figure. She is a hypochondriac who shuts herself in her rooms, interacting with the world through her telephone. She once had considerable property but has frittered it away through her own inaction and poor management while her relationship with her husband has soured, in part because of the way her gossip-mongering has affected his ability to find work.
Thompson depicts her simultaneously as pitiful and hateful. I was surprised when I reflected back on the book that she did not appear in it more given the way her presence is felt throughout and I appreciated that Thompson does not simply cast her as a victim and explores how her life is really a tragedy of her own making.
I also really appreciated the way we the different story threads are brought together in the aftermath of the murder and the various responses characters have to this event. Several of Thompson’s works feature the idea that characters make choices to avoid one problem that only make them seem more guilty of a different or more serious crime and that idea is revisited here quite effectively. This is one area where Thompson’s changes of narrator technique works well as it means the reader frequently has much more knowledge of what is happening than the characters and will anticipate several of these developments.
Finally, there is the ending. The final dozen pages of the book may not pack a surprise but that does not mean that there are ineffective. In these pages the themes of the novel are distilled and driven home, making for a pretty tidy conclusion.
As much as I admire those aspects of the novel, I think its problems lie with a structure that just doesn’t suit Thompson’s style of storytelling. Several characters who narrate chapters feel largely surplus to requirements and I wish they could have been eliminated to make more room to explore some of the other characters in more detail.
Though it has some entertaining and interesting moments, this does strike me as a second tier work. For those looking for biting social commentary and exploration of life in a small town, the author’s Pop. 1280 is a much stronger read, touching on similar themes but in a much sharper way.
The Verdict: Some structural interest but the whodunnit aspects of the story did not work for me.
5 thoughts on “The Kill-Off by Jim Thompson”
I read some of his books in high school. The Grifters and After Dark, My Sweet were made into films the same year, and I had already seen Coup De Torchon, so I was interested in him. A Thompson whodunnit though? I can’t imagine. On a side note, I’ve long thought David Lynch should adapt The Alcoholics.
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I don’t think he could entirely imagine it either which may have been the problem…
I have yet to get to The Alcoholics but any story that makes you think Lynch would be the ideal director must surely be a trip! I will be curious to get to that one. I just have to ration my Thompson out (too much in a row and I feel despairing of humanity!)
It’s been a number of years since I read this, but I do seem to recall it coming across like a series of overlapping short stories, the sort of thing that would garner massive praise from the mainstream press were a more literary darling name on the front.
I also see in it the root for a particular genre of action movie: the sort of proto-John Wicks where loads of dudes are repeatedly trying to kill another dude who ends up fighting back and more of ten than not killing everyone (El Mariachi, Desperado, Smokin’ Aces, etc). Thompson’s too class an act to go so cheap, but I reckon one could draw a line from this book to every single one of those films.
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Some of the accounts are certainly like that but there are a few that are only there to support the overall development of the plot. Kossmeyer, the lawyer, for instance.
I think if they were a little less connected might have been easier to enjoy them on their own merits. Alternatively if Thompson acknowledged in the killer’s chapter that he had done it (and – SPOILER – this character really does stand out as a sort of less charming Lou Ford type) then perhaps the killing question could have been avoided and instead we might focus on the much more interesting question of what rumors had Luane spread about everyone.
As for the idea of a proto-John Wick story, I would have loved for it to be a little more like that. To have a cast of characters actually trying to murder someone and getting in each other’s way. That could definitely have been a fun way to take this setup…