Students of Jim Thompson’s career point to the 1950s as his most productive and commercially-successful period. “After Dark My Sweet” was a 1955 paperback published three-years after his best known work, “The Killer Inside Me” during a period where he was writing a new novel every year.
The narrator of “After Dark, My Sweet” is former pro-boxer turned drifter, William “Kid” Collins. He discloses to the reader that he has been institutionalized multiple times for neurosis and recently walked away (read: escaped) from a mental asylum to hit the road. It’s clear from Chapter One that taking this literary ride with an unbalanced and unreliable narrator is going to be an interesting trip.
On the road, Collins hooks up with a screwy lush of a dame named Fay Anderson who brings him home to her dilapidated house. She seems to have a few screws loose herself and introduces Collins to Uncle Bud, an ex-cop who serves as the the criminal “mastermind” of the story. These three dysfunctional - and rather irritating- characters form the core of the plot.
It takes forever to get there, but Fay and Uncle Bud finally bring Collins in on their money-making scheme: kidnap a little boy from a wealthy family and hold him until the ransom is paid. The execution of the plan is riddled with problems and unexpected obstacles - most of which arise from the fact that the threesome attempting this are a dangerous combination of crazy and moronic.
In a better novel, this could have been fun. Instead, the reader is trapped inside the head of a neurotic lunatic for a narrator, and that makes for an exhausting read. There’s way too much examination of Collins’ mental illness and melodrama relating to his condition. The writing in Collins voice is well-done and the book was written with high literary aspirations. Unfortunately, it lacked the pop and the charm of a good crime novel as the clever stuff was just missing.
One can’t deny that Thompson was a great writer, but “After Dark, My Sweet” just isn’t his masterpiece. The great writing was just overshadowed by the author’s commitment to put the reader in the head of a narrator who overstays his welcome early in the book. Take a pass on this one. You deserve better.