Showing posts with label Jim Thompson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jim Thompson. Show all posts

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Pop. 1280

Jim Thompson (1906-1977) is a celebrated author of noir paperbacks from the 1940s through the 1950s. I've struggled with his writing style and haven't latched onto that one Jim Thompson novel that inspires me enough to fully appreciate his literature. Many point to Pop. 1280 as one of his finest works. It was originally published in 1964 by Fawcett Gold Medal and has been reprinted numerous times since. 

Nick Corey is Sheriff of Potts County, a rural riverside town with a population of 1,280. Corey sleeps late, drinks at work, accepts bribes from the local whorehouse and rarely carries out police work. He's the ultimate scoundrel. After years of being verbally and physically abused by two town pimps, Corey requests the aid of a nearby county sheriff named Ken Lacey. Corey sits down with Lacey to explain his dilemma. After ridiculing Corey, and providing a lot of racist comments, Lacey instructs Corey to become deadly aggressive. 

When Corey comes back to town, he takes Lacey's ill-informed advice to heart. He shoots and kills both pimps and tosses their bodies into the river. These murders push Corey to continue this vicious aggression and put caution to the wind. Corey also begins having an affair with his wife's friend Rose while simultaneously engaging in a sexual relationship with a town woman named Amy. Throughout Thompson's speech, Corey plans and kills people while ensuring his re-election in the upcoming vote.

If Pop. 1280 is Thompson's masterpiece, then I have little hope that I will ever like the author. I hate novels where I must reside in the mind of a psychopath. The novel is presented in the first person of Corey's perspective and I just wanted to escape his model of thinking. While these types of "ride with the killer" novels are popular, I just can't seem to enjoy them. With the killer, and the killer's intentions, in full display, there is no real mystery or suspense. It's like trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube. Once it is out, it's out.

Like most of Thompson's novels, every character is a worthless human being devoid of any common decency. I didn't have any reason to love anyone, and I didn't care what happened to them. I need a well-written narrative with characters that I can identify with and sense a kind of connection with. I need to care about the characters. Thompson provides none of that. Instead, his objective is just to create excessive characters that are profane, too sexual and have very little common sense. In poor taste, he passes these characters off as an inbred race of rednecks.  

I know I don't understand the full significance of Thompson's writing and what makes it truly unique. That's okay, I don't have to understand it or like him. His dialogue, murderous viewpoint and morally flawed characters attract generations of worshiping fans. I'm glad he has a fan base. After trying to enjoy a handful of his novels, I probably will never open another one. This kind of literature seems beneath me. There are remarkable books from remarkable authors. From my perspective, Jim Thompson is not one of those. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Forever After

In May 1960, Winston Publications launched a short-lived horror literary digest called Shock: The Magazine of Terrifying Tales with a cover illustration by Jack Davis from EC Comics. The magazine mostly reprinted classic horror and suspense stories from Weird Tales and Argosy, but the debut issue also contained an original short story by Jim Thompson titled “Forever After.” The story has been reprinted on Kindle for a buck from Noir Masters.

Mrs. Ardis Clinton is having a sexual affair with Tony, the dimwit dishwasher from the diner across the alley from her apartment. As the story opens, Mrs. Clinton has it all figured out: Tony is going to murder her husband with a meat cleaver allowing her to enjoy the widow’s life complete with $20,000 in life insurance dough. They just need to stage the apartment to look like a struggle took place during a robbery to give the murder an air of authenticity.

In order to give the ruse a sense of authenticity, Dumb Tony needs to rough up Mrs. Clinton to make it appear she was injured in the home invasion robbery that killed her husband. Meanwhile, it’s important to Mrs. Clinton that she’s wearing a skimpy negligee when her husband gets home, so Mr. Clinton can see what he’ll be missing before Tony cleavers the old man into the hereafter. The story’s tension mounts until the doorknob turns welcoming Mr. Clinton home for the last time...

“Forever After” is a nasty little story lasting only about ten pages, so I’m not going to spoil the plot any further for you. There’s an unexpected twist at the end that explains why Thompson sold the story to a fledgling horror digest rather than, say, Manhunt. It was also compiled in the 1988 collection Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson. In any case, “Forever After” is definitely worth reading. The easiest way to get a copy is to plunk down a buck and buy the digital copy for your Kindle. You won’t regret it for a moment.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Kill-Off

Jim Thompson (1906-1977) authored over thirty novels from the 1940s through the 1950s. Considered a legendary hardboiled crime writer, his most notable works often employ an abstract style of storytelling. His violent, often disturbing novels are typically devoid of any admirable, noble protagonists for readers to support or cheer. Instead, crime-fiction traditionalism is replaced with characters that typically range from the vile deviant to the casual wrongdoer. Nothing underscores these tropes more than The Kill-Off, Thompson's 1957 Lion Books release. The novel was adapted into film in 1990 and reprinted by Black Lizard in 1999.

The book takes place in the fictitious town of Manduwoc, a small coastal village in Northeastern New York. Due to economic hardship, this community has been downgraded from lavish resort community to a washed-up skeleton of despair and neglect. Thompson uses individual characters to tell their stories in alternating first-person narrations. The overall concept is a murder mystery slowly disclosing to the reader who killed an older woman named Luane Devore.

The robust cast of characters includes Luane's younger husband, the local doctor, the doctor's son and a real-estate contractor among others. Each chapter's account is a testimony to the shifting narrator's weakness, complete with shady histories, corruptible events, financial disruptions and, of course, sex. Hot, wild, untamed, interracial sex. But considering the number of historical accounts of these characters and their arms-length relationship with Luane, none of it is particularly interesting.

The Kill-Off is a slowly-developing story, and not particularly engaging. The presentation is unique, but the overall plot development was unexciting - robbing the reader of anything resembling a pleasurable experience. If you are a regular blog reader or podcast listener, you know that Jim Thompson isn't a Paperback Warrior favorite. The consensus here is that he’s overrated and saddles his novels with plodding and often senseless narratives. There’s nothing about The Kill-Off to change our minds.

Admittedly, Thompson is a good writer with a penchant for unusual characters. However, The Kill-Off showcases inept storytelling populated by uninteresting and unlikable characters. Even in death, Thompson has a rabid bunch of fans who come to his aid every time Paperback Warrior pans another one of his overrated, overwritten novels. I can’t help but wonder how they will defend trash like The Kill Off. The hate mail we’ll receive will certainly be more compelling than the solution to the book’s central murder. For the uninitiated, don’t bother.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Recoil

Oklahoma native Jim Thompson (1906-1977) began authoring his brand of violent, hardboiled crime-fiction in the late 1940s. His 1952 novel, “The Killer Inside Me”, is regarded as a mid-century genre classic. Often the author's work was written in a fast-paced, unbridled style rich with anti-heroes, sociopaths and violent criminals who serve as story protagonists. In his efforts to push the boundaries of the average paperback, Thompson's craftsmanship is widely respected by literary critics yet is often criticized for his abstract delivery. Case in point is the 1953 novel “Recoil” originally published by Lion Books.

The story's protagonist, Patrick Cosgrove, is first introduced to readers on his last day of a fifteen year prison sentence at Sandstone State Reformatory. In flashback sequences, it's explained that Patrick had a wild bank robbing accident while deer hunting (gives new meaning to chasing bucks). As a product of the 1950s, the law of that era specifically required someone to mentor or accept the responsibility of taking a reformed prisoner under their wing. Without it, the prisoner stays confined. Patrick doesn't have any friends or family, so he wrote to hundreds of companies asking for employment. After months of silence, Dr. Luther, a psychologist and political lobbyist, responds to Patrick's letter in the form of a job proposal. After his release, Patrick goes to work for Dr. Luther and that's where things become unusual.

Unconditionally, Luther provides free room, food and a car to Patrick. Additionally, he pays him $250/month to be a town surveyor...but provides no real instruction. Confused, Patrick drives around all day and attempts to avoid the seedy side of town. Later, Luther's sexy and flamboyant wife throws herself at Patrick. Instead of restricting the behavior, Luther encourages it! It's as if Thompson just purposefully defies the genre's traditions despite the overall absurdity of the situation. When Patrick hires a private investigator to learn more about Luther and Lila, smoking guns, car chases and corpses begin populating Thompson's otherwise flat, one-dimensional prose.

I wasn't sure what to make of “Recoil”. My first impression was to fling the book across the room, but then realized I had hardwood floors and the Kindle version. Jim Thompson proves that everyone should do a short, preliminary search to obtain a book's general public reception. “Recoil” is mostly panned by readers, and I'm only contributing to that consensus. Like an old, rusty Volkswagen, I start and stop repeatedly when I venture into this author's lane. Artistically, there's nothing to celebrate in this paperback. It is filled with awkward scenes that not only fail to entertain, but are just confusing to the reader. Yet somehow I stuck around like some interstate rubbernecker just wanting carnage satisfaction.

In closing, here's a scene summary that is indicative of everything wrong here:

Patrick finds a dead body in an office building late at night. Fearing that he himself will be a suspect in the murder, he attacks the night guard and attempts to stuff the corpse in the backseat of his car.

It's this kind of stuff that brings “Recoil” ridiculously close to the Paperback Warrior Hall of Shame. Steer clear of this book at all costs.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, January 7, 2019

After Dark, My Sweet

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.

Purchase this book HERE

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Swell-Looking Babe

A Swell-Looking Babe was a mid-career paperback original from hard-boiled king Jim Thompson that was originally released in 1954 by Lion Books. It has a heist, a femme fatale, double-crosses, incest, rape, mobsters, cops, and it’s a bit of a mess.

Bill “Dusty” Rhodes is our wide-eyed and innocent hero who works as the overnight bellhop in the fancy, 400-room Manton Hotel. He dropped out of college to care for his infirmed father who suffered a breakdown after being accused of having communist sympathies during a local Red Scare. At the book’s beginning, Dusty is a blameless young saint of a man - a non-drinking, hard-working boy so handsome that the high-end, female hotel guests just can’t stop hitting on him. However, Dusty never takes the bait because it’s against the rules, and he’s the bellhop with the heart of gold.

The hotel is filled with colorful characters including an ex-mobster named Tug who plays a big-brother role in Dusty’s life and a night desk clerk with a mysterious past. Because The Manton caters to a high-end clientele who can afford the steep $15 per night room rate, they also have a secure safe deposit system in the lobby that every reader will immediately assume to be the target of an attempted heist later in the story.

The Swell-Looking Babe of the title is a new guest named Marcia whose mere presence at The Manton makes Dusty rethink his policy of rejecting the advances of the comely, female patrons. Things go rapidly sideways one night when Dusty goes to her room, and he needs to call upon the services of his resourceful ex-mobster friend to bail him out of a jam. This leads to a convoluted heist plot, which is the best part of this book.

Crime novels of this era usually forgo a lot of character development, but the author doesn’t skimp here. We get pages and pages of background and flashbacks that explain Dusty’s character, family, and upbringing. Because it’s a Jim Thompson book, this background is filled with dysfunction and twisted infrafamilial sexuality. We also are forced to endure the interminable side-plot involving Dusty’s father and the circumstances surrounding the alleged communist sympathies that lead to his unemployment. These flashbacks and side-plots slow down the novel considerably making the reader hungry to get back to the swell looking babe, the heist, and its twisty aftermath.

For his part, Thompson was probably excited to write a novel from the perspective of a hotel bellhop as he worked in that field himself as a teen. I can only imagine that by this point in his writing career, Jim Thompson wasn’t at the mercy of editors telling him to clean up his convoluted plots. There’s certainly a good crime novel in this short book, but you need to tune out a bunch of static to hear the noise. Read this one only if you’re a Jim Thompson completest. Otherwise, you can safely take a pass. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Hell Of A Woman

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.