A Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson

Originally published in 1954

Frank “Dolly” Dillon has a job he hates, working sales and collections for Pay-E-Zee Stores, a wife named Joyce he can’t stand, and an account balance that barely allows him to pay the bills each month. Working door-to-door one day, trying to eke money out of folk with even less of it than he has, Dolly crosses paths with a beautiful young woman named Mona Farrell. Mona’s being forced by her aunt to do things she doesn’t like, with men she doesn’t know — she wants out, any way she can get it. And to a man who wants nothing of what he has, Mona sure looks like something he actually does.

Soon Dolly and Mona find themselves involved in a scheme of robbery, murder and mayhem that makes Dolly’s blood run cold. As Dolly’s plans begin to unravel, his mind soon follows.

I hadn’t planned on getting back to posting on this blog for another few weeks when my first semester of grad school will be done but those plans were upended when I read this book and found myself desperate to talk about it.

First, a little background. I first encountered Jim Thompson after starting this blog and I have reviewed everything I have read. If you’re interested, you can track back through the posts archive and see what I have made of the works I have tackled so far. This title was suggested to me by JJ from The Invisible Event about a year ago and while Thompson has been on the back burner for a while, mostly because my posting has been so irregular this past half year, I knew that when I did I would make a point to get to this one first.

I’m glad I did because this may be the most effective and satisfying of all of the Thompson novels I’ve read to date.

We follow Frank “Dolly” Dillon, a door-to-door salesman who is trying to make a buck or collect on accounts owed. One day he encounters Mona Farrell at one of the homes he is visiting. He is instantly struck by her beauty and is surprised when the older woman she lives with tries to make a deal to let him spend some time with her in her bedroom in exchange for the silver service he is trying to sell. He learns from Mona that such arrangements are a regular part of her life.

Dolly accepts but becomes uncomfortable at the arrangement, opting to just talk with her. Awkwardly he promises he will return at some future point to visit Mona again though he has little intention of keeping that promise. Shortly afterwards though Dolly finds himself in jeopardy and is surprised when Mona comes to his rescue with a big stack of cash, apparently taken from the old lady. She tells Dolly that there is more where that came from and he begins to think of a plan to acquire that, and possibly Mona too at the same time.

Dolly, like many Thompson protagonists, is a bit of a good ol’ boy. He is irresponsible financially, fiddling with the accounts he’s meant to be collecting. He can be charming, with people rarely knowing how much he dislikes them because he covers it up with bonhomie. And then he has a wife he doesn’t treat well, and a bit of a roving eye for the ladies.

Dolly is, to put it simply, a loathsome, misogynistic brute. That is a common playbook for Thompson protagonists who often begin a novel appearing a bit cheeky and roguish but whose sociopathy really only comes into focus as we spend an extended period of time with them. The difference here, and what makes this book so compelling, is that Dolly is much more than just a devil with an angel’s face. He’s a twisted, complicated, confused and confusing, mess of a man. The sort of man who initially appears confident but one we will soon see is less in control than he seems.

At the heart of that contradiction in Dolly’s character is his attitude towards women. We know that he is attracted to Mona because of her youthful beauty. We also gather that she is just the latest in a very long line of women, many of whom he has married and divorced. It soon becomes clear that what attracts Dolly to these women is their apparent purity but that by being with him and expressing their own desires, he will inevitably come to find them repulsive and want to move on. It’s a surprisingly rich and critical portrait of that sort of man and one which Thompson absolutely nails here.

The reader may find individual things Dolly does to be quirky or intriguing but unlike other villains such as Nick Corey, Dolly’s brutishness is on full display for the reader from close to the start of the novel. There is never really any possibility of liking Dolly, but we will likely be interested to discover just what he is up to and how events will pan out.

The other significant difference between Dolly and Nick is that our protagonist in this novel lacks the latter’s inventiveness and ingenuity. Dolly is a small time sort of guy, and while he may have some ambitions, he is juggling frantically, just trying to keep all the balls in the air. We expect him to fail but it is not immediately clear how he will get the comeuppance he clearly deserves.

His plan, when we get to see it, is hardly ingenious and the reader will likely see where Thompson is headed. What makes the plan interesting is not its components or its complexity but what it says about Dolly. Thompson is often at his most powerful when showing how people can use others’ weaknesses, fears, and prejudices to get others to do what they want. This is that sort of a story.

After an initial crime is committed, we get to follow Dolly as he tries to keep things together and avoid people’s suspicions. Thompson packs in several interesting developments that propel the story in slightly different directions, keeping the novel from feeling predictable.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the novel though is a narrative device that Thompson deploys at several points in the novel. At several key points, typically when we are about to encounter a significant criminous action on the part of Dolly, we switch from a first person present narration to a memoir format, presented from a slightly different and mysterious alternative voice. Only after the event is described do we jump back to the novel’s typical narration style but with a small time jump having taken place.

Given that the accounts have some overlap but give us key details from only one of its narrative voices, the reader cannot be certain of the truthfulness of anything they read. This illustrates the unreliability of the narrator by demonstrating the conflict between accounts but it also serves as an interesting exploration of the subtle differences that might exist between a pure internal voice and the way we seek to present information to others.

This brings me to the book’s highly unusual ending. Or should that be endings. The first time I read the final chapter I found myself doing a bit of a double-take and I ended up rereading the pages several times to make sure that I understood what was being presented to me. Having given us two narrative voices, separated into chapters, this final chapter presses them together, leading the reader to two apparently different resolutions. It’s a little confusing and I felt at first that it is trying a little too hard to be literary in its style, but I liked it more as I reflected on that ending more.

What I like most about the resolution is how perfectly it ties into the range of themes that Thompson has developed throughout the novel. It isn’t clean and tidy and I can understand why some will hate it, but I think it fits this novel brilliantly.

The Verdict: Though A Hell of a Woman is not as fun as Pop. 1280 or as shocking as The Killer Inside Me, I think it deserves to be talked about as a work on a comparable level. Thompson’s skill here is characterization, scratching at the surface of an apparently straightforward character to reveal unexpected depth and complexity.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book has been reprinted a number of times over the years. While you are unlikely to find it on store shelves, you should be able to order a copy at your bookstore of choice with the ISBN 9780316403733.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the link above to find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

2 thoughts on “A Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson

  1. I am, naturally, delighted that this one worked so well for you; Thompson would, by all accounts, spend at most three months on any book, and this really feels like one of those times when all the ideas just clicked together perfectly. There’s a real grubbiness and a studied seediness to a lot of what he wrote, of course, but here — as you say — the added complication of how reliable what we’re being told is just makes the whole thing somehow even more bracing than it would otherwise be.

    Now read Savage Night.

    Liked by 1 person

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