Among the crime authors who rose to prominence in the 1950s, Jim Thompson seems to get more modern praise in literary circles than his paperback original contemporaries. His work is spoken with a kind of reverence that Harry Whittington, Charles Wileford, and Bruno Fischer never seem to receive. Was Jim Thompson really that much better?
“A Hell of a Woman” was a Lion Books 1954 mid-career effort from Thompson. It’s a 200-page, first-person con-man story told from the perspective of Frank “Dolly” Dillon, a door-to-door salesman working for Pay-E-Zee - essentially a walking department store peddling goods on credit installment plans to rural rubes. As the novel opens, we learn that Dillon is working himself into a financial hole and has been skimming cash from his collections to make ends meet with a lazy, dumpy wife in his roach-infested home.
Thomson doesn’t waste any time getting into the intrigue. In the first chapter, Dillon is trying to sell silverware to an old lady and immediately finds himself in a dark and sexualized situation with the old lady’s buxom niece, Mona. We learn that the old woman’s practice of pimping Mona for sex to traveling salesmen in exchange for consumer products is nothing new, and smitten Dillon promises to rescue the girl from this life of perpetual sexual trauma.
Thompson’s willingness to mine the depths of human depravity must have been one of the things that set him apart from his crime novelist cohorts. And the murders that take place in this short work are more shocking and violent than others from this era. However, a mere race to the bottom would have been meaningless if he wasn’t such a damn fine writer. The text is very raw, and his descriptions of women, for example, are simply brutal. Dillon’s first person narration is conversational, but it’s also the vehicle for a deeper understanding of his nature - he’s a grifter with a real - though easily compromised - conscience.
Thompson employs a first-person literary perspective trick halfway through the novel and periodically thereafter that bolsters the idea that he wanted his pulpy crime novel to be more literary than other books of the time. But otherwise, this is just a very entertaining, well-written, gritty noir novel filled with anti-heroes, femme fatales, and double-crosses. It’s a great read and a terrific introduction to Thompson’s body of work. Maybe it’s not breaking new ground, but if the paperback original crime fiction of this era is your thing (and it really should be), “A Hell of a Woman” is truly essential reading.