Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The crime fiction of Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson (1906-77) was a very innovative writer whose life and career took him from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma all the way to Hollywood. Mostly known for his crime fiction, Thompson was not well particularly well regarded during his own lifetime, but he has received a great deal of critical appreciation since his death in 1977. Writers such as Ed Brubaker and James Ellroy have acknowledged his influence, and the movie industry continues to mine his work for screen ideas.

Before he turned to fiction, Thompson had a very versatile career as a newspaper writer and true crime author. This experience gave him a lot of insight into the criminal mind, and he had the ability (and the courage) to really get into the head of psychopathic killers. He was ahead of his time in this respect.

His best known work is probably The Killer Inside Me (1952). The narrator, Lou Ford, is a small-town sheriff who appears to be slightly dull-minded. Yet, in reality Sheriff Ford is very intelligent and experiences a nearly-constant urge to act violently; Ford describes his urge as the sickness (always italicised). Ford is a stereotypical serial killer, created by Thompson before that term even existed.

Other key works include The Getaway, which was adapted for the 1970 movie starring Steve McQueen and directed by Sam Peckinpah. Thompson wrote a script based on his novel, but McQueen rejected it as too reliant on dialogue with not enough action. The script was rewritten, and Thompson eventually sought, but lost, a Writers Guild arbitration to get script credit for the film. There is no question that the original story was greatly altered, but there is also no question that the original book would have been difficult or impossible to film.

Also noteworthy is The Grifters (1963). The narrator is Roy Dillon, master of the "short con", who has a romantic entanglement with another expert grifter, Moira Langtry, who sells sexual favors to her landlord in return for the rent money. Roy's mother, also a grifter, is in the picture as well. Together, the three characters get caught up in a crime spree which culminates in betrayal, infamy and murder. The Grifters was made into a movie in 1990, and this time there were very few changes to Thompson's original story.

Thompson's stories are usually first-person narratives which reveal a nihilistic world-view and a frighteningly deep understanding of the warped criminal mind. There are no good guys in Thompson's literature — most everyone is abusive, opportunistic, or simply waiting for the opportunity to pull a fast one.

Although Thompson was a prolific and generally successful writer, he was always broke and could never really get on his feet financially or otherwise. He acquired a drinking habit from the time in his youth when he worked as a bellboy in a rough Texas hotel, and later as a roughneck in the Oklahoma oilfields. He died from alcohol-related illnesses in 1977 at the age of 71.

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