Whisky & Culture

Not so lucky Jim

Jim Thompson died unknown and poor. But his 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me is now regarded as a masterpiece. Jefferson Chase turns its whisky-drenched pages
By Jefferson Chase
Jim Thompson is the James Joyce of hard-boiled American fiction. Born in Oklahoma in 1906, his first job was at a seedy Texas hotel during Prohibition, where he was well-regarded for his ability to scare up a pint of whiskey at all hours.Broke and dependent on the stuff he used to procure for guests, he turned to writing in the 1940s, eventually producing somewhere between 29 and 50 works, mostly straight-to-paperback pulp novels and uncredited film scripts for Hollywood. Hardly the conditions under which great literature is produced, yet they led him to develop a stream-of-consciousness crime fiction often imitated but never equalled in its humour, fatalism and brutality.Thompson’s works fall into categories: third-person narratives where he flits between multiple characters and first person monologues that reveal an ability to get into the heads of psychotic misfits who “started the game with a crooked cue.”The best of the latter – and Thompson’s consensus masterpiece – is The Killer Inside Me (1952). The protagonist is the cliché-loving, lay-about sheriff Lou Ford, who isn’t at all the good-humoured simpleton his constituency takes him to be: I’ve...leaned against a store front with my hat pushed back and one boot hooked back around the other – hell, you’ve probably seen me if you’ve ever been out this way – I’ve stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside.As the novel opens, Ford’s got a problem. The locals are pressing him to do his job, and that includes running a pretty prostitute out of town.This task seems simple enough, but it opens up memories better left repressed, as Ford reflects over a whiskey in a cheap Fort Worth hotel similar to the one where young Thompson himself worked:It’s like there was a plot against me almost. I’d done something wrong, way back when I was a kid, and I’d never been able to get away from it. I’d had my nose rubbed in it day after day until, like an over trained dog, I’d started crapping out of pure fright. And, now, here I was—I poured another drink…Here I was, but it wouldn’t be like this much longer. Joyce was bound to die if she wasn’t dead already, I’d got rid of her and I’d got rid of it—
the sickness—when I did it.Joyce being the prostitute in question and Ford’s sadomasochistically inclined lover, who lies in a coma after he has beaten her insensate. Policing the community is a dirty job, especially when you’ve got your own twisted subconscious to deal with.As it turns out, Ford seems to be in luck. The colleague with whom he has come to Fort Worth to take testimony, should the victim revive, returns to the hotel with the news that she died on the operating table.But why does his colleague proceed to get stinking drunk?And why does he take up Ford’s habit of speaking in clichés?“T-tell you something” he said. “T-tell you somethin’ I bet you never thought of.”“Yeah?”“It’s – it’s always lightest j-just before the dark.”Tired as I was, I laughed. “You got it wrong, Bob,” I said. “You mean—”“Huh-uh,” he said. “You got it wrong.” A condemned man’s sudden insight –Sheriff Bob Maples isn’t long for this world. But then again neither is Sheriff Lou Ford.The astonishing thing about The Killer Inside Me, as it spirals ever further into the sort of hell Thompson excelled at depicting, is that the more we learn about Ford’s dark secrets, the more sympathetic he becomes.As the lawyer who springs him from jail near the novel’s end puts it, “a weed is a plant out of place. I find a hollyhock in my cornfield, and it’s a weed. I find it in my yard, and it’s a flower.”Thompson himself was a weed: an admirer of Dostoyevsky who was forced to churn out cheap fiction as fast as the liquor would allow; a novelist who died in obscurity in 1977 from a series of strokes, which left him unable to write or even speak, but who advised his wife to save his manuscripts because “I’ll become famous about 10 years after I’m dead.”In the 1980s, Thompson was rediscovered and celebrated as every bit the equal of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. A fitting end for a writer in whose world dawn only comes long after darkness has set in.