The Kill-Off by Jim Thompson

Book Details

Originally published in 1957.
This title is a standalone.

The Blurb

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?

The Verdict

Some structural interest but the whodunnit aspects of the story did not work for me.


My Thoughts

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 Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

The Killer Inside Me
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1952

Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is often cited as the author’s masterpiece. Certainly I think it remains his best known novel in spite of other books having had more popular movie adaptations.

The book, written in 1952, is also one of the earliest examples of a inverted crime novel featuring a psychopathic protagonist. There had been killers who killed multiple victims before and arguably even seemed to enjoy it but never with the degree of violence present here.

The novel concerns a Texas lawman, Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. He comes from one of the older families in the neighborhood and has lived there all his life. The book opens with him being dispatched to chase a woman out of town who has set herself up as a prostitute.

When he encounters that woman, Joyce, he begins to get violent with her but rather than inspiring her to get out of town, it prompts the start of a sadomasochistic relationship between the pair. Lou enjoys himself but expresses the feeling that he is experiencing the symptoms of what he terms “the sickness” that has plagued him since his teen years when he sexually abused a young girl – a crime that his brother took the blame for.

Lou’s long-term girlfriend Amy Stanton, a schoolteacher from one of the most prominent families in town, becomes suspicious of his behavior and when Joyce expresses a desire to run away with him and get married he realizes that the situation can’t go on. He concocts a plan to kill Joyce and put the blame on Elmer, the son of a local construction magnate who he blames for the death of his brother. He carries the plan out but soon realizes that he is under suspicion, prompting further murders as he tries to clean up loose ends.

One of the reasons I had held off on reading this book until now, aside from my long-stated preference to avoid starting out with an author’s most famous work, is that I had heard that this was an incredibly violent novel. Certainly I do not think that people are wrong to say this – Lou is vicious, administering severe beatings that reduce his victims to a bloody pulp – but I think it slightly mischaracterizes the work. Thompson’s writing is not as explicit in the details of violence as that of some other hard-boiled from the decades that follow – what sets it apart is the focus on exploring how Lou feels during and after those events. We are put into the mind of a killer and it’s not a pleasant place to be.

I don’t want to spoil the later parts of the novel so the safest part to discuss in detail is the relationship with the prostitute Joyce. As I indicated earlier, this begins with an act of brutal violence and yet it seems to quickly turn into a relationship in which he abuses her body. I say seems because Thompson does not directly describe what they do, only the feelings it creates in Lou and we see their interactions outside the bedroom as she discusses wanting to run away with him. Assuming that Lou’s narration is truthful and accurate, something we have no reason to doubt as this is not presented as an attempt to convince the reader of a character’s innocence or guilt, the relationship seems quite consensual by this point.

Later, when Lou decides to murder her, we are reminded that he felt he was in love with her. Even if that is not the case it is apparent he is far more attracted to Joyce and feels he has far more in common with her than he does with the prissier Amy but Joyce is an inconvenience. She represents the side of him that he needs to cover up in order to fit into Texan society.

For years Lou had been able to hide the violent side of his personality by developing an “aw, shucks” persona and masking his fierce intelligence. His work in the sheriff’s department, attendance at weekly Bible classes and long-term relationship with Amy have led most to consider him to be a pillar of the community. Part of what makes this book so shocking is the way Thompson has him abuse their trust, acting viciously towards them and the people they love while looking them directly in the eye.

Thompson attempts to give us a psychological understanding of Lou, actually supplying us with a probable diagnosis by the end of the novel. That diagnosis is both medical and rooted in the exploration of an event from Lou’s childhood which is intriguing though I was not entirely convinced in the latter, perhaps because the details remain vague as Lou makes an active choice to repress them.

Some criticism I have read of the book focuses on the relative treatments of Lou’s violent acts when targeted at men and women. The argument goes that the novel is misogynistic because the murders of the women are more brutal, detailed and vicious while the murders of men are barely described at all. I agree that they are correct to describe those murders in that way however I feel that Thompson’s point is that Lou’s “sickness” is directed specifically at women and are tied up in that event from his past. That is to say that the violence aimed at women and the hypocrisy of American society on this issue is an intentional theme of the book rather than something that critics have revealed through textural analysis. That isn’t to say that it makes for comfortable reading however and I certainly would sympathize with anyone who finds it makes for a difficult or unpleasant experience.

If we switch perspectives a little and look at this as an example of an inverted crime story I think there are some further points of interest worth exploring. For one thing, this is much closer to a traditional inverted mystery story than any of the other Thompson works I have read so far. Lou develops something approaching a reasonable plan but there are flaws in it that the reader can discern and use to work out how everything might unravel. Several developments are clued pretty well in the text and while a few of those developments are complete surprises, I never felt cheated by the book.

Thompson attempts to portray a police investigation, albeit one that often operates in the background of his story with the protagonist not always aware of the details of what is going on. We focus on movements, motives and opportunity, although Lou attempts to subvert those investigations using his own knowledge and access, making it clear that this is not just the tale of a man committing crimes but also the efforts to bring him to justice.

It makes for pretty compelling reading, helped along by Thompson’s witty writing style. Lou is never someone you feel the slightest shred of sympathy for however, nor does he blend in quite as successfully as Nick Corey does in Thompson’s later novel Pop. 1280.

It is that latter point that I think ultimately makes that novel stand out to me as a more successful and complete work, even if it offers a less convincing explanation of its killer’s actions than this novel does. I would suggest that book is often funnier and lighter in tone, in spite of being just as violent. That, for me, is Thompson’s masterpiece and so, I suppose, I have to say that The Killer Inside Me is a little overrated (though it was the more influential work).

That is not to say however that it is a disappointing read or not worth your attention. While its themes and tone won’t be for everyone, The Killer Inside Me is certainly one of the milestone texts in the history of the crime novel and while that alone would justify a recommendation, I think it is an interesting read in its own right.

After Dark, My Sweet by Jim Thompson

After Dark, My Sweet
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1955

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.

Nothing More Than Murder by Jim Thompson

Nothing More Than Murder
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1949

When Joe Wilmot is found by his wife Elizabeth in the arms of Carol, their housemaid, she makes him a proposition. She will skip town and leave them together on the condition that she be declared dead and given the insurance payout to allow her to start a new life somewhere else.

Of course, to get an insurance payout you need a body but Elizabeth has a plan for that too. Carol is tasked with finding an unattached woman of a similar physique and luring her to their home. Once there she would be killed in a fire, burning the body to the point where it could not be fully identified.

It is a solid, if ghoulish, plan and the novel begins with Joe taking the first steps in executing it, placing an ad in the local paper to try and find a suitable victim. The chapters that follow not only detail how they are putting their plan into action but also the events that led them to that point, exploring their psychological states at key moments.

One issue that Thompson faces is convincing us that these characters would conceive and develop this plan and I felt that this was the least successful aspect of the novel. Certainly the situation he has devised is interesting, dramatic and quite original but given the nature of what they are planning, I found it challenging to get my head around each of their motivations.

The easiest character to understand is Joe. He had started working for Elizabeth at her movie house but when they married he took over the concern, finding ways to trim costs and work the distributors system to ensure that he was showing the movies he wanted. He loves the business and is deeply invested in it, so it makes sense that he would be willing to consider a plan that allows him to keep hold of it and allow him a fresh start with Carol.

I found it harder to understand the motivations of the two women in his life. In one respect this is appropriate – Joe’s confusion about Elizabeth’s reasons for offering this deal is an important plot point – and I do think Thompson ultimately addresses some of these questions but I found that they lingered over the early part of the novel. My feeling is both women feel underwritten and are given much less definition than Joe.

While the plan wasn’t of Joe’s devising and he is not directly involved in its execution, Thompson’s decision to have him narrate the story rather than using a third person narrative style makes a lot of sense. For one thing, Thompson is able to use his narration to establish aspects of his character but it also allows us to experience his lack of understanding of the thoughts and mentalities of the two women in his life. This leads to some of the book’s richest pages towards its end as Joe reflects on how his marriage to Elizabeth ended up going so badly.

The plan Elizabeth has hatched is quite clever and I think it is credible to think that it might work. The mechanics and characters’ movements are clear and easy to follow while at first glance the murderers are leaving no loose ends. Of course, things will go wrong – that’s just a part of the noir style – but it’s reasonable to think that they might succeed.

The problem of course lies with the insurance company who send an investigator to the town to look into the death. Here, once again, the decision to tell the story from Joe’s perspective pays off as it means that we have little idea exactly what he has found or how close he is to finding out their secret beyond what the investigator tells Joe.

Thompson sets his pieces in place effectively, creating obvious points of tension between the various characters. The reader waits for those tensions to be triggered and to see just how things will collapse and, of course, if anyone will get away with it all.

I also found that I really enjoyed Thompson’s explanations of the movie distribution system and some of the practicalities of running a movie theatre. In these passages Thompson manages to convey some pretty complicated ideas quite effectively, throwing light on how the industry worked in that time.

The supporting characters are similarly quite interesting and I enjoyed following along as things start to go wrong with the plan. Several of these characters are particularly colorful. Some of these issues are quite strongly clued but some others may take readers by surprise.

Though it is not perfect, I found that I liked and enjoyed Nothing More Than Murder. The writing is sharp and the way this story is resolved feels really quite clever.

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

1280
Pop. 1280
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1964

Pop. 1280 is my first encounter with Jim Thompson, a prolific author of hardboiled crime fiction best known for writing The Killer Inside Me. I had previously learned about him as part of a lecture about violence and crime fiction in the Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction series and was even more intrigued when I saw JJ had listed him as one of his Kings of Crime.

The novel’s protagonist is Nick Corey, a corrupt and lazy sheriff in a tiny county in rural Texas. His days are spent taking bribes, eating and drinking at the various establishments in the town and sleeping with the town’s single (and some not so single) women.

He has some problems though that threaten his chances of keeping this job and the comfortable living that comes with it. For one thing, he is being publicly disrespected by two pimps at the local brothel. With a tough reelection fight looming he wants to stamp this out before it can do more damage to his public persona. And then there’s his complicated love life…

Pop. 1280 follows Nick as he attempts to straighten out some of these problems, indulge his appetites and ensure his reelection to the only job he feels suited for. While he appears to be quite a simple, corny kind of guy who tries to avoid taking any firm positions, we soon learn that he gives far more thought to what he does than it appears as he commits murder and manipulates another character into claiming responsibility for it. Crucially we are not told what he intends and so his actions often seem irrational or counterproductive, only for the reason for them to become clear after the fact.

Not every aspect of the story falls within Nick’s control however and he spends significant chunks of the novel responding to problems instigated by other characters. This gives the story a meandering, unpredictable quality as we see him find opportunities in situations that seem quite undesirable, showing his quick mind and talent for manipulation.

Thompson’s story drives home a deeply pessimistic view of humanity in which no one wants to obey the law themselves but wants to see others subjected to it. Nick reflects that what this amounts to is that the influential folk want to be left alone and to see him pick on the town’s black and poor white population instead and what we see confirms it. Almost all of the supporting characters are shown to be in some way corrupt, greedy and selfish and several of his victims seem to quite deserve their fates, usually falling into them because of their own moral compromises and instincts.

There are some very strong satirical moments in the story and it should be said that as dark as the subject matter can be, it is often very amusing. Nick’s habit of responding to criticism with a folksy saying works throughout the novel while his amorous misadventures place him in some truly ridiculous situations. These sorts of comedic moments keep the overall feel of the piece quite light and give a good sense of balance to the novel as a whole.

The three central women in Nick’s life are also all quite intriguing and varied figures, each feeling quite fleshed out if far from sympathetically. I do not want to spoil the way each is developed and used in the story but I think they all have an interesting journey with that of Rose, his wife’s best friend whose husband is abusive, being the most striking. That storyline takes several unpredictable turns and incorporates several of the novel’s most shocking moments.

Thompson cultivates a feeling of shock and dismay on the part of the reader right the way through the novel, routinely exposing characters’ vices and cruelties. Readers should expect to find considerable, casual use of a racial epithet by pretty well every character in the book which, while not pleasant, is authentic to the time and setting.

Nick is not a nice man, nor can he really be elevated to the status of anti-hero. He is a villain who does some truly cruel things but because the people he targets are often more loathsome than him readers may well enjoy seeing him pull off his plans. While he seems to obfuscate and lie at points in his narrative, he can also be quite straightforward in admitting to exactly who and what he is. For that reason when he explains himself at the end of the novel it doesn’t come as a shock but rather it is the logical conclusion to what we have observed throughout the story.

It is surprising that although the book touches on some truly dark themes Thompson is pretty restrained in his use of violence. The threat of it and our knowledge that it is happening is always there but there are relatively few moments in which we see it explicitly described. This contrasted with the image I had of Thompson’s style and I will be interested to see whether that is true of his other novels.

It should be said that while this is a crime story that this is not a mystery. There is nothing here for the reader to detect or deduce other than what exactly Nick has planned and his motive, both of which are spelled out early in the book.

Rather Pop. 1280 is both a character study of a killer and an exploration of the human propensity towards selfishness, greed and hatred. Stephen Marche described it as ‘a romp through a world of nearly infinite deceit’ and while I don’t have enough knowledge of the author’s work to be able to agree with his assessment that it is the author’s true masterpiece, I would certainly say it is a compelling, cynical read that manages to shock, appall and amuse in fairly equal measures.