Bookends: Now and on Earth (1942)/King Blood (1973)
Books published 1920-59: 20
The Case for the Crown
Diversity: If you’re going to consider the hardboiled subgenre as part of the history of crime fiction – and you really, really should – the accepted wisdom says you go Chandler or Hammett or, at a push, James M. Cain. I say that Jim Thompson did more than those erstwhile gentlemen combined and should be enthroned ahead of all three of them. Chandler famously said of Hammett that he “gave crime back to the people who committed it for a reason”, but I feel this is more true of Thompson than of Sam: Hammett’s and Chandler’s way in was always their detective characters, who stumbled into something already in motion and acted in the way a detective is expected to. Thompson, by contrast, gave us the petty losers, the cuckolded husbands, the big-dreaming small-town folk, the small-time grifters and any other number of subsections of society who had their own reasons for committing their crimes (sex was always a part of Thompson’s protagonists’ motivation) and made us feel their motives because – forget some fabulous inheritance, or a trust left to my wife who died so I married someone else and we’re pretending she’s the original, or the man who married my one true love and then made her miserable so she killed herself leaving me to avenge her – they were motives the ordinary man could understand, even experience themself.Taking the crime out of the hands of the Genius Amateur or the Moral Detective, he gave us these people we could understand – and more often than not despise – and worked them into a frenzy of convoluted schemes made all the more complicated by their inability to see things through without some hitch (the undoing of every villain ever in classic crime). These people committed crimes for reasons anyone could relate to, and rather than bring you in after the fact and seek to piece it together retrospectively, Thompson grabbed you by the neck and dragged you along for the ride. He made you watch it fall apart, and held you thunderstruck and appalled while everything crumbled.
Outside of his novels, Thompson wrote innumerable (many of them lost, to my understanding) short stories for American pulp magazines, and several screenplays (of which only two – Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Paths to Glory (1957) – were ever produced). Additionally, he wrote a novelisation of the Raymond Burr series Ironside, and published several poems and a handful of non-fiction articles in those same pulps that published his first, shorter fiction. For me, though, his diversity is the detail and care he brought to a variety of different plots (there are Thompson touchstones, no doubt, but never anything so crude as a formula) without once straying into the miserablist philosophy of the avant-garde: nothing else out there is quite like Jim Thompson.
Growth: In the same way that Agatha Christie isn’t dismissed as a Queen of Crime for daring to publish outside of the accepted bounds of the Golden Age, so Jim Thompson – who I’m imagining will be a surprise choice to many of you – shouldn’t be discounted just because he doesn’t immediately appear to fit the bill. For me his masterpiece is the out-of-era Pop. 1280 (1964) in which the “Aww, jeez, shucks, he sure seemed like a nice kinda fella” narration of Nick Corey is slowly stripped away over the first few chapters to reveal something decidedly more clear-eyed and psychotic beneath. Equally, A Hell of a Woman (1954) is probably the most striking piece of narration I’ve ever read: as his protagonist’s psyche begins to fracture apart under the strain of the plot, the different chapters are narrated by his ‘public face’ and his less acceptable ‘inner self’. Time and again, Thompson found a new wrinkle on the “man in a small town” theme and expanded it in new and interesting ways. He was no artist – the average length of time he spent on a book is apparently around three months – but these were no mere unreliable narrators; without info-dumping it upon you, and without a side-character psychiatrist showing up to explain everything in words of one syllable, Thompson showed how it was possible to convey madness and frustration beautifully. And charm, too, because by god aren’t these cracked, crazy, untrustworthy killers, blackmailers and cons charming.
Additionally, he found an art in an otherwise-cheap form of expression that was beyond many of his contemporaries. The final chapter of The Getaway (1959) contains more satire than can be found in the entire output of Ngaio Marsh or Christianna Brand, and he carried a firm tradition of tight construction through virtually everything he wrote, showing how to expand upon the perceived limitations of the pulps. And the prose. Oh, the prose! Picking up a Thompson novel and flicking more or less at random to any page I can stumble across something really rather beautiful. Examples abound, but honestly just read, say, The Getaway and you’ll get breathless moments of hard-hearted glory like:
Flight is many things. Something clean and swift, like a bird skimming across the sky. Or something filthy and crawling; a series of crab-like movements through figurative and literal slime, a process of creeping ahead, jumping sideways, running backward. It is sleeping in fields and river bottoms. It is bellying for miles along an irrigation ditch. It is back roads, spur railroad lines, the tailgate of a wildcat truck, a stolen car and a dead couple in lovers’ lane. It is food pilfered from freight cars, garments taken from clotheslines; robbery and murder, sweat and blood. The complex made simple by the alchemy of necessity.
Clinton sighed, and gave up. All his life he had given up. He didn’t know why it was like that; why a man who wanted nothing but to live honestly and industriously and usefully – who, briefly, asked only the privileges of giving and helping – had had to compromise and surrender at every turn. But that was the way it had been, and that apparently was the way it was to be.
Great prose does not make an all-time great, of course, but it certainly helps!
Durability: Stephen King (who is probably the nicest man alive, as he never seems to have said anything negative about anyone ever) said of Thompson that “he let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it”. Or, to quote the New Republic, source of the phrase used most in relation to his books, “Read Jim Thompson and take a tour of hell.” Thompson’s books are unflinchingly – in the truest sense of that word – brutal and tough to read without wincing at times. The Killer Inside Me (1952) is simultaneously the easiest and toughest book I’ve ever read, because its unstilting amorality does not let up, and yet the drain everyone is spiralling draws you in helplessly, too. The impact of these books will surely never lessen – long after the shock of illegitimate children from the 1920s has stopped being the scandal it was, the frustrations of Thompson’s characters and their subsequent visitations of it upon the people around them will continue to bruise anyone who picks up his work probably for as long as the written word remains.
It’s nice to imagine the crime novel as a genteel exercise in wits, but disingenuous to limit it to such and so deny the worth of writing such as this. The very fact that Thompson’s rope-taut prose could trot easily between nightmare and scheme is, if anything, a cause for joy: stripped of the gaudy machismo of Spillane and his ilk, we have a celebration of crime as a terrible, degrading thing always one spark away from our own hearts, always just in reach. Thompson’s prose will never, never lose this impact; or, rather, if it does then we’ve got bigger problems as a species.
The Case for the Prosecution
There’s an argument – or, rather, a perception – that Thompson’s work lacks the construction to be considered alongside the likes of John Dickson Carr, that the jackleg nature of his writing would never produce anything close to the intricacy of a ‘true’ detective novel. I’m terribly sorry, but that doesn’t wash with me. Look at the intricacy of the scheme in Nothing More than Murder (1949) and how even on the first page he is beginning to pick apart the flaws in his plan, or the cunning, genius, whip-sudden reversals instituted by Nick Corey when challenged about his presence during a key night (no spoilers!) in Pop. 1280. Watch the care with which Lou Ford goes about trying to commit a murder in The Killer Inside Me, considering all the possible interpretations of the physical evidence someone will find when they come to investigate, or the kidnap plot instigated by Uncle Bud in After Dark My Sweet (1955)…don’t tell me there’s no care, no virtuoso flourish, in any of that. It’s done unshowily, it’s done with the key motivations being thoroughly ground into the people involved and breaking them over its back, but it’s done with consummate skill.
And some of you, I know, will be struggling to get over Thompson’s crowning at the exclusion of Hammett and Chandler (because they’re not getting crowned now, I’m sorry). In spite of my avowed aversion to these two, I have huge respect for what they did in the context of the genre, especially in the widening of the detection element away from the Genius Amateur and the lowering of it to the level of we mere mortals. But, let’s be honest, Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade were always deliberate ciphers, lacking the relatability of Thompson’s bums and sociopaths, and Chandler always had more interest in the form than the function of his prose. Thompson – the Dimestore Dostoyevsky, as he became known – was more about the people and so gets in head and shoulders above them and anyone else in this mix (Rosses Macdonald and Thomas, etc). I hear your objections. I wave them aside. Long live the King of Clubs.
The King of Clubs because…: Flippancy demands something along the lines of “reading a Jim Thompson novel is like being clubbed in the face” here, but from my understanding the King of Clubs is supposed to represent the realisation of ideals. Heartbreakingly, this is at the core of almost every single one of Thompson’s novels: all his battered, savage, embittered, wounded, violent protagonists – you’d never call them ‘heroes’ – are trying to do is realise something better for themselves, and no-one captured the futility of that frustrated ideal better than Thompson.
Two places down, two to go; in case you’ve missed the ride so far, here’s what got us to this point…
Choosing the Kings of Crime: The Criteria
I: The King of Hearts – John Dickson Carr