A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson

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.

The Nothing Man by Jim Thompson

Originally published in 1954

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…

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.

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

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!

Texas by the Tail by Jim Thompson

Originally published 1965

To everyone he’s every played dice with, Mitch Corley seems like the luckiest guy around. But in truth, Corley’s fast hands are the only gift fate’s ever given him. He’s never held down a steady job, and when it comes to women, his luck might just be the worst of all — his girlfriend and partner-in-crime Red would double-cross him in a heartbeat if she knew just how short on cash they really were. And if Red ever finds out about the wife Corley neglected to mention, there’s a good chance that Corley might not survive the night. 

At first, Mitch was sure Texas would be the perfect place for him and Red to run their game — there are players in nearly every back room and side-street across the state and here, the pockets run just a little deeper. But Corley forgot about one thing: Texans don’t forgive easily. And there’s nothing they hate more than a cheater.

Those who have followed this blog for a while will be aware that my experiences with Jim Thompson’s work have generally been very positive. I have appreciated his bold characterizations, compelling situations and his ability to satirize aspects of American life. Given that most of his works are told from the perspectives of the criminous, it should be unsurprising that I – a fan of inverted crime storytelling – have become a fan of his.

In Texas by the Tail, protagonist Mitch Corley is a man with a problem. He and his girlfriend Red travel between casinos, trying to hustle rich folk in games of dice. While Red thinks they have a tidy sum stashed away, Mitch knows the reality is different and he is in desperate need of a big win. The pair head to Texas in search of bigger stakes and bigger winnings, only to find that the Lone Star State is a place where it is dangerous to cross a man…

Texas by the Tail is not, unfortunately, much of a crime story. To be fair to Thompson I am pretty sure that it was never intended to be. Perhaps it is meant to be a character study, both of its protagonist, Mitch, and of Texas’ biggest urban centers. I also can understand the suggestion that some make that it is intended to be a comedy, albeit one rendered in the ironic style we may now associate with the Coen brothers’ films.

Is there criminal activity? Sure, there’s a little but it is really never the focus of the book. As Mitch reminds us at points throughout the story, he isn’t a cheat. He doesn’t play with loaded dice – he has simply become very, very good at manipulating them and the people he plays with. As such this doesn’t exactly fit with the general themes of my blog. For that reason I think it best to acknowledge up front that this is neither a mystery nor a crime story and try to assess instead whether it is interesting on its own terms and within the wider context of the author’s work.

Thompson’s protagonists tend to be portrayed as either sociopaths or schlubs. Mitch is perhaps closer to the latter, though I think he is never made to look as foolish as say Joe Wilmot in Nothing More Than Murder or most of the cast of The Kill-Off. Instead Mitch is better seen as a desperate man trying to hold everything together. He may have made poor decisions but he is clearly trying his best to do right by everyone.

The exception to that statement, and the barrier to my liking Mitch, is his treatment of Red. There are a couple of very uncomfortable scenes in the book in which we see him disciplining her by administering some spankings. This is hardly unique to this book as an event – other Thompson novels often feature instances of domestic violence – but this doesn’t fit comfortably with the comical tone found throughout much of the rest of the book. In this respect it doesn’t feel like commentary on impotence and masculinity as it does when we see Lou Ford engage in it, nor can we dismiss it as playful given Red notes how much he hurt her later in the novel. As such, it just left me deeply uncomfortable while offering little in the way of insight.

There are clearly some signs that Thompson was trying to offer up something deep or profound at points, usually in the form of commentary in the narration. I felt most were trite and offered little of the insight or satire I am used to finding in his novels. Of course, not every book needs to be deep or offer those sorts of commentaries yet I feel it is necessary in the type of novel Thompson writes – without that depth those moments simply feel exploitative and prurient.

Still, while I may not love Mitch he is clearly not intended to be seen as cruel or sociopathic. Those labels can be better applied to the men Mitch moves among – the wealthy elites of Texas. They are by far the most ruthless, cold and cruel characters in the book. We see several such characters, observing not only their comfortable lifestyles but also how vicious they can be when they feel they have been crossed. Yet I think it is safe to say that they are also playing by their own set of rules and while some moments may feel capricious, typically the reader understands why they are acting the way they do.

While some of the interactions between Mitch and these characters can be interesting, I cannot say that I found any of them to be particularly compelling or memorable as characters. Perhaps that reflects that these characters are neither complex nor conflicted – they are who they appear to be from the outside.

I would suggest that the most interesting aspect of these characters is not their own personalities but to observe how they differ from the characters we have seen in other Thompson works. One of the main differences between this and those other works is that it takes place almost exclusively in the big urban centers of Texas which does allow Thompson to offer commentary on those places and the folk that inhabit them.

While I do not think you could accuse Thompson of densely plotting this novel, he does at least convey a sense that it is building towards a moment of reckoning. Throughout the novel there is a strong sense of a noose tightening around Mitch as his options are slowly whittled away and it looks increasingly likely that he will lose the things he cares for most. Frankly it was the sense that the book was building towards something that kept me engaged, hoping that Thompson would deliver a strong payoff to his story.

Sadly I feel that the book falls short even in this regard. What I find particularly frustrating is that there is a moment right towards the end of the book that would have provided the sort of kick that I have come to expect from a Thompson novel. Instead the ending feels at odds with much of what has preceded it. Taken with other aspects of the novel that diverge from Thompson’s typical style – the more likable protagonist and capery, comedic tone – we might view this as an attempt by the author to do something a bit different. Generally that self-awareness should be commended on the part of an author but unfortunately I just do not think that it works in this instance.

The result is a book that strikes me as lacking a clear sense of focus and purpose with too little to say to be regarded as a serious work while not being funny enough to be viewed purely as comedy. Readable, certainly, but not particularly enjoyable. It is, in my opinion, a decidedly lesser work with limited appeal for crime fans and one that I would suggest is best saved for later, deeper cuts into the author’s bibliography.

The Verdict: Perhaps Thompson was trying something different here – unfortunately it doesn’t work. Underwhelming novel with only slight connections to the genre and issues with tone.

The Kill-Off by Jim Thompson

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.

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Originally Published 1952

Everyone in the small town of Central City, Texas loves Lou Ford. A deputy sheriff, Lou’s known to the small-time criminals, the real-estate entrepreneurs, and all of his coworkers — the low-lifes, the big-timers, and everyone in-between — as the nicest guy around. He may not be the brightest or the most interesting man in town, but nevertheless, he’s the kind of officer you’re happy to have keeping your streets safe. The sort of man you might even wish your daughter would end up with someday.

But behind the platitudes and glad-handing lurks a monster the likes of which few have seen. An urge that has already claimed multiple lives, and cost Lou his brother Mike, a self-sacrificing construction worker fell to his death on the job in what was anything but an accident. A murder that Lou is determined to avenge — and if innocent people have to die in the process, well, that’s perfectly all right with him.

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.

Nothing More Than Murder by Jim Thompson

Originally Published 1949

Joe Wilmot can’t stand his wife Elizabeth. But he sure loves her movie theater. It’s a modest establishment in a beat-down town–but Joe has the run of the place, and inside its walls, he’s king. Without the theater, he’d be sunk. Without his leadership, the theater would close in a heartbeat. If it isn’t the life Joe imagined for himself, at the very least, it’s livable.

Everything changes when Joe falls for the housemaid Carol, and the two can’t keep it a secret from Elizabeth. Elizabeth won’t leave Joe the theater unless he provides for her…but he’s put all his money into the show house.

Carol and Joe’s only hope is the life insurance policies they’ve taken out on each other. If one of them were to be presumed dead, they’d have more than enough money to solve all their problems…

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

Originally Published 1964

Nick Corey is a terrible sheriff on purpose. He doesn’t solve problems, enforce rules or arrest criminals. He knows that nobody in tiny Potts County actually wants to follow the law and he is perfectly content lazing about, eating five meals a day, and sleeping with all the eligible women.

Still, Nick has some very complex problems to deal with. Two local pimps have been sassing him, ruining his already tattered reputation. His girlfriend Rose is being terrorized by her husband. And then, there’s his wife and her brother Lenny who won’t stop troubling Nick’s already stressed mind. Are they a little too close for a brother and a sister? 

With an election coming up, Nick needs to fix his problems and fast. Because the one thing Nick does know is that he will do anything to stay sheriff. Because, as it turns out, Sheriff Nick Corey is not nearly as dumb as he seems.

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 lecture 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.