Originally published in 1954.
It was supposed to be only a temporary job — something to pay the bills until Dusty could get his feet back on the ground and raise enough money for medical school. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being a bellboy at a respectable hotel like the Manton — that is, until she came along.
Marcia Hillis. The perfect woman. Beautiful. Experienced. Older and wiser. The only woman to ever measure up to that other her — the one whose painful rejection Dusty can’t quite put from his mind.
But while Dusty has designs on Marcia, Marcia has an agenda of her own. One that threatens to pull the Manton inside-out, use Dusty up for all he’s worth and leave him reeling and on the run, the whole world at his heels.
Dusty Rhodes was meant to be going to medical school but his plans were put on hold when his father lost his job, forcing him to take a job working the night shift at the pretty high-end Manton Hotel. The hours may not be great but the tips are pretty generous. The only thing he has to be careful of is to never get involved with any of the guests. This was easy enough for him until he met Marcia Hillis.
Marcia checks into the hotel late one night, getting one of the few cheap rate rooms in the establishment. Dusty immediately finds himself drawn to her, perhaps because of her resemblance to a woman from his past, and struggles to keep his distance. Then one night he answers a call from her asking him to bring her stationery and finds himself in a compromising position, only to receive help from an unexpected source.
The problem is that the help comes with a catch. Dusty’s guardian angel wants his help with pulling off a heist. The job is a daunting one but the score could set him up for years to come and make his financial worries go away. The question is whether they can manage it and get away without detection?
A Swell-Looking Babe is one of the most interesting books I have read to date by Jim Thompson. It is certainly not a great work in the way that Pop. 1280 was, nor is it as successful in what it does as the likes of After Dark, My Sweet, yet I was struck by its ambition. Thompson may not accomplish everything he sets out to do for reasons I’ll come onto but I appreciated that he attempts to try something a little more ambitious, blending styles in such a way that the reader is not likely to anticipate exactly how the story may unfold at its beginning.
As with many of Thompson’s works, A Swell-Looking Babe is at heart a complex character study. Dusty is initially quite a likable protagonist. In the first few chapters we learn a little about his background and the circumstances in which he started work for the hotel and that story is likely to endear him to the reader. As they read on however it will become increasingly clear that he is not quite as charming or as good-natured as he initially appears.
This devil with an angel’s face concept is an idea that runs through many of Thompson’s novels and it is realized well here. Dusty’s issues are significant and while I was disappointed that the blurb on my edition gave the nature of his secret away, I think there were enough clues early in the book that I may well have guessed it anyway. What was more surprising though are the things that secret has led him to do and when we do understand that we are likely to see him in a whole new light. It makes for an interesting psychological portrait of a rather angry young man and in some ways the more limited scale of his crimes makes them all the more interesting.
The subject of Dusty’s obsession, Marcia Hillis, is no less interesting than the novel’s protagonist, though we spend only brief periods in her company. Her actions can confuse as Thompson leaves the reader wondering to some of the motivations that lie behind them – an ambiguity that is built on in some interesting ways in the later parts of the novel.
The centerpiece of the novel is its heist sequence, set in the hotel. Part of the reason it works is that Thompson allows our anticipation to build steadily, describing the idea in general before presenting it in greater levels of detail as we near its beginning. This portion of the book is not only exciting because of the nature of the risks that the characters are taking but I also think it’s a pretty interesting scheme logistically too.
The process of getting Dusty involved in the scheme in the first place though is a little more awkward. Having seemed to establish that Dusty was smart enough to stand a good chance of doing well in medical school, his lack of application of any logic or reasoning in the predicament he finds himself in may strike some readers as odd. While I am not sure that there is ever a safer way out of the messy situation he is in at the start of the novel, his gullibility at points can be quite astounding.
Another issue I have with the book is more of a structural one. While I can tell you that Thompson will pull all of his elements together by the end of the novel, there are sections of the book which read like tangents to the rest of the material. Readers may well wonder why we spend so much time watching Dusty’s father potter around asking for money or discussing his lawsuit. Eventually Thompson does connect the book’s themes and elements together and once he does I found myself all the more engaged with it – I would have sympathy though with those who may feel that there are some sections of the book which feel a little conspicuously padded.
My final complaint would be that the middle third of the book suffers a little from feeling a little predictable, particularly for those already well versed in this style of mystery fiction. Thompson establishes some of his ideas a little too clearly early in the book and so the likely consequences of those elements are often quite apparent.
That is not to suggest however that the book is without surprises. In fact there are some quite satisfying ones along the way, particularly as we near the novel’s endgame and resolution. Thompson’s conclusion here may be a little abrupt yet it feels fitting given the circumstances and while it may not be as punchy as some of his other endings, I appreciated that it does resolve matters quite tidily, providing the reader with a clear idea of how the story’s various elements are connected to each other.
The Verdict: A clever and interesting character study about a young, obsessive man. It perhaps lacks the power and focus of Thompson’s most powerful works but it is a largely rewarding one.