Sunday, March 23, 2014

After Dark, My Sweet (1955)

I probably shouldn't complain about the novel that 35 years later became the movie that became a keystone in the revitalization of Jim Thompson's reputation. It's vintage Thompson: a drifter and ex-boxer at the center of it, falling in with and in love with a mercurial lush, whose moods switch around like the cat who thinks it wants to be outside, and she's mean when she's in a foul mood, which is often. There's also a grinning avuncular con man out of Sinclair Lewis, another familiar figure in Thompson novels, who's half Foghorn Leghorn comic relief and half deadly plot point. And what in the world are these three nogoodniks up to? Restaging the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping basically. So there are lots of interesting elements to the mix. I like seeing Thompson feel his way around the pathology of a kidnapper. Another area that looked promising, the relationship of the criminals to the boy they kidnap, only goes to predictable places after all. It feels like at some point he decided nothing about these things was much interesting. On the matter of plot construction it's reasonably sturdy, setting up and knocking down the various pins of a crime caper noir and pretty much keeping it all together for that. It's something he'd been trying for since at least A Swell-Looking Babe, and here he manages it pretty neatly. But with the parts working together like a machine the result is somehow robotic. The types are too set-in, especially Faye, the love interest / lush. Her mood swings, often conveniently serving some narrative purpose, feel mechanical, although, as always, few do mean quite as well as Thompson so perhaps it balances out. But it's not particularly believable as random behavior. Or this: our hero Collie has a history in mental institutions, to no discernible purpose other than to provide a vulnerability others can exploit. Frankly, I'm a little tired of mental institutions and the abuses thereof in Jim Thompson novels. There I said it. After Dark, My Sweet is regarded highly by many fans of Thompson—on short lists of the best, even. I'm not so convinced of that, but I don't think it's one you can skip either.

In case it's not at the library.

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