Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Killer Inside Me (1952)

Jim Thompson's breakthrough novel—not literally his first, but it might as well have been—is typically hailed as his masterpiece. Even Stanley Kubrick got in on the act, famously calling it "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered." I'm not sure I agree. I can think of at least two other novels by Thompson that are better, A Hell of a Woman and Pop. 1280, and many more with details much more vivid and disquieting than anything here. But this is where Thompson figured himself out as a writer, already in his mid-40s. It has the thrill of discovery and certain clarity. The brutality and the raw (if folksy) misogyny, offered so casually and lightheartedly, the insight that psychopaths are people a lot like you and me (and very different too), Thompson's easy manner of feeling his way into the story with such a calculated jaunty air, and above all the bold innovation of telling it first-person from the point of view of the diseased mind—that's all born practically fully formed here. It's lurid and violent but always just a little bit comical, except it's never funny. It has the effect of someone amped on speed and too many days without sleep trying to tell a joke. It's impossible to get away and you dread the punch line because you know you will be expected to laugh. The Killer Inside Me is very much experimental work and half the fun is watching the crazy ideas come from nowhere, discarded when done with. Thompson appears to have had some notion, for example, that Lou Ford, our (anti)hero, a deputy sheriff in a rural Texas county, would among other things bore people to distraction with unending streams of platitudes. That's pretty funny until you see it in action. Then it's just weird. By the second third of this very short book it's about dispensed with. I understand most of Thompson's novels, and all the good ones, tended to be written in concentrated bursts, after a few weeks in a cheap hotel room. They read that way and I'm not saying it's a bad thing. Thompson, at his best, is almost always in perfect command of his work. I say start with A Hell of a Woman if you're only going to read one or two. But this one should not be much behind that if you're pushing on. It's the one everybody talks about and then you understand.

In case it's not at the library.

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