The Nothing Man by Jim Thompson

Book Details

Originally published in 1954

The Blurb

War changed Clinton Brown. Permanently disfigured by a tragic military accident, he’s struggling to find satisfaction from life as a rewrite man for Pacific City’s Courier. Shame has led him to isolate himself from closest friends and even his estranged, still faithfully devoted wife, Ellen. Only the bottle keeps him company.

But now Ellen has returned to Pacific City, and she’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Brown back. Even if it means exposing his deepest secret … a painful truth Brown would do anything to stop from coming to light. He’d kill a whole lot of people just to keep this one thing quiet–and soon enough, the bodies just happen to start piling up around him…

THE NOTHING MAN is Thompson at his most psychologically astute, in a deeply suspenseful and tragic portrait of one man’s journey through the dark side of the Postwar Boom.

The Verdict

A flawed but entertaining exploration of the forces that cause someone to kill.

Mr. Clinton Brown regrets the necessity of murdering Ellen Tanner Brown.

My Thoughts

Clinton Brown works as a rewrite man for the Pacific City Courier, the only newspaper in a small city not far from the Mexican border. His editor, Dave Randall, was his commanding officer during the war and was responsible for issuing an order that led Clinton to come into contact with an anti-personnel mine. A tragic mistake that ensured that he will never be able to become a family man. While Clinton knows that Dave didn’t intend for that to happen, he frequently uses the man’s guilt over that order as a way to exert power over him and to take pleasure in the man’s discomfort.

The book begins with Clinton at work on a story built around the Sneering Slayer murders. He confides in the reader that he feels bitter mostly that the last line of his story will, by necessity, need to be written by someone else. A clue that we are about to be embark on the sort of dark homicidal journey that Jim Thompson wrote so well.

Unlike the protagonists in Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, Clinton does not set out to become a serial killer. He may enjoy his little sadistic digs at Dave Randall or the corrupt local detective Lem Stukey but prior to his first meeting with Deborah Chasen that sort of manipulation is the extent of his sociopathy. This book explores the circumstances that cause Clinton to first kill and then to try and kill again (and again) to try and protect himself.

Thompson is not subtle in explaining that it is the man’s accidental penectomy or, to be more specific, his fear of it becoming widely known that leads him to his first kill. This emasculation clearly has left him angry, bitter and resentful. Clinton dreads the idea that others will find out that secret and yet he toys with them, sometimes strongly hinting at it in their conversations. These behavioral contradictions are not accidental or oversights on the part of the author – they are part of the core character of this man and are indicative of the conflicts within his character.

One of the things I like most about Thompson’s work is that his protagonists tend to inch themselves towards destruction, compounding bad decisions until they find themselves beyond hope. I think that approach works because it helps to make sense of how people find themselves in truly impossible situations. While there are some people who recklessly gamble their way into peril, most of his protagonists are men who think they are smarter than they actually are and who cannot catch a break. That is certainly the case with Clinton Brown.

The result is that he is a character who, in spite of some of the ridiculous things that happen to him, feels surprisingly credible – particularly in comparison with Lou Ford or Nick Corey. We may not agree with the choices he makes (or like him as a person) but Thompson effectively conveys the forces that have made him who he is and the motivations behind some of those terrible choices.

Thompson offers us multiple murders and manages to make each feel quite distinctive, both in the circumstances leading up to it and the means by which it is done. I would suggest that they become progressively more striking and detailed as the book goes on as though the account is mimicking the character’s increasing familiarity and comfort with death.

By virtue of his position and relationship to one of the victims, Clinton finds himself pretty close to the investigation which allows him to meddle with it. This meddling was, for me, the most intriguing and original part of the book in large part because of the way it explores the man’s psychology, particularly in relation to the question of who he is willing to hurt and who will become his subsequent victims.

Thompson’s characterization of the other men in Clinton’s life, both as colleagues on the paper but also the detective Lem Stukey, feels similarly very convincing. While we may only be sharing Clinton’s thoughts directly, it is easy to understand what the various people he interacts with are thinking and feeling in response to the various provocations he offers.

Thompson’s portrayal women can be a little more divisive. There are often misogynistic comments voiced by characters within his stories and there certainly area few instances of that here such as when a character asserts he would like to give a woman a ‘good sock in the mush’. The question is whether you think Thompson is accurately depicting the views and attitudes of his day or writing to reinforce them. I personally feel it is intended to be the former rather than suggesting this is behavior to be emulated but I can completely understand those who feel the other way.

Unfortunately the book eventually runs out of steam as it becomes evident that Thompson doesn’t really have a clear idea on how to conclude the thing. There is an ending but I cannot say it was particularly satisfying or that it provided much sense of closure. Indeed I didn’t even find it all that easy to follow, forcing me to reread it to try and make sense of its implications.

Still, while I was a little disappointed with the way the book ends, I admire the craziness of the journey Thompson takes us on here. He crafts a wild but convincing picture of how a man comes to commit a series of crimes and create a criminal persona. While I think it doesn’t offer the richness and depth of Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, it is still a very clever and compulsive read that combines Thompson’s bold, larger-than-life characterization with a really solid murder plot. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but for those who can stomach the nastiness, I found this to be a compelling read.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Impossible Event wrote this superb post about the book which he suggests is a good place for those seeking a ‘comparatively gentle, non-famous introduction’ to Thompson. I can’t disagree!


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