At least one critic has suggested that James Meyers Thompson (1906 – 1977) stands in relation to James M. Cain as Chandler did to Hammett: “Thompson has talent and skills worthy of his predecessor, but like Chandler, he brings them to bear on an area his predecessor did not explore…. Thompson’s voice, his shading, is uniquely his own…. [This is] stronger, darker medicine, the violence and sex starkly, unapologetically depicted.” 1
Much of Thompson’s life is obscure, but his birth (1906) in Anadarko, Oklahoma, and younger years as a “hotel worker, plumber’s helper, truck driver, pipeliner, roustabout and harvest hand” seem certain. 2 He was a political radical in the 1930s, blacklisted in the McCarthy Era, and a scriptwriter for Stanley Kubrick (writing the film noir classics The Killing and Paths of Glory). He published eighteen novels between 1949 and 1965: the most famous are The Killer Inside Me (1953), After Dark, My Sweet (1955, The Grifters (1963) and Pop. 1280 (1965). Thompson was celebrated by French critics and the subject of a renaissance in U.S. interest beginning in 1990.
“The typical Jim Thompson anti-hero is a troubled, perhaps even schizophrenic, misogynist who drinks a lot and kills people when he feels like it,” Meredith Brody has written. 3 “Most of his protagonists are evil,” Geoffrey O’Brien adds, “the way they might be albino or left-handed. But unlike a good mainstream novelist, he does not lead them toward redemption or even epiphany. He suckers you into thinking he’s telling a suspense story, or a humorous anecdote – but the payoff is the void.” 4
The suckering consists, as R. V. Cassill notes, in the assumption of shared belief by reader and author in the American myth of success: “the society expects you to succeed at something socially valuable, of course, but it gives you the momentum towards success in any case…. The American dream … makes no provision for an asylum for failures…. Even if you are a rotten, murderous piece of astral excrement and know it, you’re supposed to go on and succeed.”5 Like James M. Cain, Thompson uses a first-person narrator to develop this disjunction, but he discards the unity of characterization that Cain’s repentance offered. The Thompson narrator “wears himself as a disguise,” writes Cassill, his failed self invisible and pathological under his social roles and obligations. In “the sickness,” as Thompson’s narrators call it, the failed self can only sometimes manage the split between the convention-laden social success and the amoral pathological criminal. It gradually dawns on the reader that paranoid schizophrenia is the nature of the narrator. This is sometimes done well, so a scholar like Cassill can call The Killer Inside Me “a novel of ideas” and to compare it to Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.
Lou Ford, the apparently genial sheriff featured in this novel (he also appears later in Pop. 1280), is the paradigm of Thompson’s anti-hero who “wears” his social self like a costume. He uses cliches, platitudes, and social conventions like weapons, bludgeoning people with them because they are stupid and it’s their fault. Ford knows he is sick. But he doesn’t let readers in on the joke immediately: this technique took Thompson beyond Cain, allowing him to develop the disjunction between reality and nightmare, so that the latter comments on the former. Where Cain used the retrospective power of first-person narrative to hint of his protagonist’s ultimate repentance, Thompson uses it to indicate the absence of any values. There is just The Void. When the Thompson killer laughs, revealing his detachment from any moral values, the reader also laughs, but at the horror of such a world.
Thompson’s way with violence and his experience in Hollywood made him useful to movie-makers in the glory days of gore in the 1970s and 80s. He worked with Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway, 1972) Stanley Kubrick (The Killing, Paths of Glory), Alain Corneau (Serie Noire, 1979, from Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman) and Bertrand Tavernier (who set Pop. 1280 in French Equatorial Africa as Coup de Torchon, 1981 ). Since they, like the writers, could not yet use profanity freely or film explicit sex or murder, they sought from Thompson (shown right in the 1970s) the techniques for implying those words, acts, and attitudes.
This craft was uneven, as even his supporters concede. Moving his narratives at breakneck speed, Thompson often resorted to cliches, patches of purple prose, stereotypical characterizations, or clumsy plotting. Some of his attempts at macabre humor simply fall flat. He never rewrote, often turning out a novel in a matter of weeks. Several novels were published post-humously, but neither they nor much of his earlier work approach the level of After Dark, My Sweet, which Collins and others cite as his best. He died in 1976, just as a revival of his work was brewing. He has been influential on the Quentin Tarantino-Richard Rodriguez generation of film-makers, though it’s far from clear that he shared their appreciation for kitsch.