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Jim Thompson (1906-1977)


American novelist and screenwriter, best known for his paperback pulp novels dealing with the criminally insane. Thompson knew that he was not destined for big success, but before he died he told his wife to protect his manuscripts and copyrights, anticipating posthumous fame. He was right, ten years after his death. Thompson's dark, violent view of the world has inspired such filmmakers as Sam Peckinpah, Stephen Frears, Bertrand Tavernier, and Quentin Tarantino.

"I've loafed streets sometimes, 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. Just watching the people." (from The Killer Inside Me, 1952)

James Meyers (Jim) Thompson was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma, the son of James Sherman Thompson, the sheriff of Caddo County, and Birdie Myers Thompson, a schoolteacher. Later he claimed that he saw daylight first in the Caddo County Jail, but actually he was born over the cell block in a comfortable sheriff's apartment. His father, "Big Jim" as he was called, was a colorful figure. He foiled jail-breaks, rode with some of the most celebrated Western peace officers, and arrested horse thieves. He also was a chronic gambler and was in 1907 dismissed for misappropriating funds. Avoiding arrest, he fled to Mexico. For the next 14 years he traveled from one oil field to another with his family, and managed to acquire a fortune by 1919 before going bankrupt. In 1921 he suffered a breakdown and died in an institution 20 years later.

For the disappointment of his father, Thompson was in his childhood shy, bookish, and hated sports. After graduating from Polytechnic High School in Fort Worth, he held numerous jobs – beginning as an oil well and pipeline worker in the West Texas oil fields, gaining at the same time weight and muscle. When he returned to Fort Worth he stood six feet four inches and weighted 240 pounds. While being enrolled at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, contributed to the Prairie Schooner.

During the Depression Thompson became affiliated with the Federal Writers Project in Oklahoma, helping to turn out guidebooks of the state. He also contributed to "true crime" magazines. In this period, when trading in liquor was illegal, Thompson got to know the local gangsters, losers, deputies, corrupt civil servants, and later depicted their world in his books. In 1931 he married Alberta Thompson; they had two children. He also joined the Communist party and made friends with other political activists, such as folk singer Woody Guthrie.

Thompson had started writing for magazines in the 1920s, but in the 1940s he turned to crime fiction as a way of making money. Thompson's first novel, Now and on Earth (1942), owed much to Erskine Caldwell and John Steinbeck. In the story the father of the protagonist dies in an asylum, killing himself by eating the stuffing from his mattress, the fate Thompson often claimed of his own father. Heed the Thunder came out in 1946. These early books were not successful.

Thompson worked as a journalist for the New York Daily News and for the Los Angeles Times Mirror. In the 1950s he was blacklisted during the period of Joseph McCarthy's "crusade" against Communists. Later he was summoned to Hollywood by the director Stanley Kubrick to co-write screenplays. The Killing (1956), based on Lionel White's Clean Break, was a downbeat movie about robbery at a racetrack. Kubrick showed in it his characteristic precision and care in the construction. Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Clay who plans the robbery, but in the end most of his gang is shot and he loses the money.

Paths of Glory (1957), an anti-war film based on Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel and starring Kirk Douglas and Adolphe Menjou, was set in the French trenches of World War I. Kubrick rewrote the script with Thompson. Douglas considered it a catastrophe and he demanded that they use the original script, which was done. However, Thompson stayed in Hollywood and made scripts for the TV series Dr. Kildare and Convoy and produced one paperback novel based on Ironside. Two years before his death Thompson had a cameo-appearance as Judge Grayle in the 1975 film adaptation of Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, starring Robert Mitchum.

Thompson's fifth book, The Killer Inside Me (1952), published by Lion Books in New York City, made his reputation. Most of the book Thompson wrote at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, where he had found a temporary shelter at the home of his sister and her husband. The central character and first-person narrator is a small town sheriff Lou Ford, who pretends to be dim-witted. In fact is a cunning, complex, even brilliant madman, who plays cat and mouse with the world. Stanley Kubrick considered the book the most chilling account of a criminally warped mind he had ever encountered. In the film version from 1976, directed by Burt Kennedy, the outwardly amiable deputy sheriff Lou Ford says: "When things get a little rough, I just go out and kill a few people." Another sharply portrayed psychopath is found in The Nothing Man (1954), in which the protagonist, a newspaperman Clinton Brown, drinks and kills but cannot even get himself blamed for the crimes he commits. Thompson's autobiography, Bad Boy (1953), was about his chaotic coming of age, bootlegging, and how he almost got himself beaten to death by a homicidal sheriff's deputy.

In the 1950s Thompson wrote nearly 20 novels, without much attempt at polishing them. He was frequently broke, regularly fired for his boozing, and sometimes separated from his family. His problems with liquor Thompson depicted in The Alcoholics (1953). Also The Nothing Man portrayed the victims of drink. Because of moderate success he wrote fast, and repeated himself in later works, recycling amongst others The Killer Inside Me again in Pop. 1280 (1964). The awarded mystery writer and critic H.R.F. Keating selected it for his list of the one hundred best crime novels. "The great merit of the novels of Jim Thompson is that they are completely without good taste, and of them perhaps Pop. 1280 (the title refers to the population of a small town in an imaginary Potts County in deepest America) has the least good taste of all." (Keating in Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987) In the story Nick Corey is seemingly a weak sheriff, but he eventually shoots one of his tormentors. When he kicks him he comments "it wasn't real nice to kick a dying man, and maybe it wasn't. But I'd been wanting to kick him for a long time, and it just never had seemed safe till now."

Several of Thompson's stories are set in the deep South, where he moved in a similar atmosphere of decay and the macabre as William Faulkner in his novels. Faulknerian twisted family relationships marked The Grifters (1963), a story about a doomed Oedipus character, Roy Dillon. He wants to have a stable life, is cheated by his mother, Lilly, and dies rather clumsily. Lilly hits him with her handbag as he takes a drink of water – the glass breaks and cuts his throat. Stephen Frears' film version of the book gained four Academy Award nominations, including best-adapted screenplay for Donald Westlake. "The film immediately sets up a parallel between the three swindlers – Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston), Roy Dillon (John Cusack), and Moira Langtry (Annette Bening) – by crosscutting between them and putting them on a split screen. Thompson's focus is clearly on Roy as the only one of the three who stands any chance of redemption. In the film, however, none of them are redeemable. In the novel, for example, Roy's guilty seduction of Carol introduces a moral dimension to the story, marking him as a man who does distinguish between innocence and experience, a distinction not made in the film." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)

Thompson himself was an admirer of the classic Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. His favorite characters were barflies, grifters, losers, and psychopaths. There is nothing certain in his world. Or as the writer once said: "There are 32 ways to write a story, and I have used every one, but there is only one plot – things are not what they seem." An example of Thompson's skill in finding new approaches to crime stories is seen in The Getaway (1959). It starts with a bank robbery that goes wrong, then returns years later to the life of the criminal mastermind Doc and his wife who are chased by both the police and criminals. Thompson finally leaves the couple at a hideout, which is a kind of prison, only much worse.

In the 1970s Thompson had several apoplectic strokes. He was always in need of money, and he drank it away as soon as he got any. In his last book, King Blood (1973) he returned to the figure of his father, "a heavyset young man with the profile of McKinley". Thompson died in Los Angeles on April 7, 1977. His death caused little attention and none of his work was in print at that time in his own country. Thompson remained in the U.S. a minor figure in the history of pulp fiction until some academic critics and publishers resurrected his work. His dialogue was seen as crisp as Hammett's, prose as convincing as Chandler's. Most of his novels and some of his uncollected short fiction have been reprinted.

For further reading: Jim Thompson: The Killers Inside Him by Max Allan Collins and Ed Gorman (1983); Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); Jim Thompson - Sleep with the Devil by Michael J. McCauley (1991); Difficult Lives by James Sallis (1993); Savage Art by Robert Polito (1995); Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. by David Mote (1997); The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, compiled by Mike Ashley (2002); Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers by Lee Server (2002) - See also other writers from the hard-boiled crime fiction: Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane. Note: Thompson had a small role in the film Farewell, My Lovely (1975), based on Raymond Chandler's novel

Selected works:

  • Now and on Earth, 1942
  • Heed the Thunder, 1946 (aka Sins of the Fathers)
  • Nothing More Than Murder, 1949
    - Murha vain (suom. Mika Tiirinen, 1999)
  • The Killer Inside Me, 1952
    - Tappaja sisälläni (suom. Hannu Tervaharju, 1989)
    - films: The Killer Inside Me, 1976, dir. by Burt Kennedy, starring Stacy Keach, Susan Tyrrell, Keenan Wynn, Tisha Sterling; The Killer Inside Me, 2010, dir. by Michael Winterbottom, starring Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Casey Affleck, Simon Baker
  • Cropper's Cabin, 1952
  • The Alcoholics, 1953
    - Alkoholistit (suom. Mika Tiirinen, 1996)
  • Savage Night, 1953
    - Hurja yö (suom. Mika Tiirinen, 1997)
  • Bad Boy, 1953
  • The Criminal, 1953
  • Recoil, 1953
    - Vastaisku (suom. Mika Tiirinen, 1996)
  • The Golden Gizmo, 1954 (aka The Golden Sinner)
  • Roughneck, 1954
  • A Swell-Looking Babe, 1954
    - film: Hit Me, 1996, dir. by Steven Shainberg, starring Elias Koteas, Laure Marsac, Jay Leggett, Bruce Ramsay
  • The Nothing Man, 1954
  • A Hell of a Woman, 1954
    - Piru perii omansa (suom. Mika Tiirinen, 1997)
  • After Dark, My Sweet, 1955
    - Pimeän tultua, rakkaani (suom. Mika Tiirinen, 1995)
    - film: After Dark, My Sweet, 1990, dir. by James Foley, starring Jason Patric, Racherl Ward, Bruce Dern
  • The Killing, 1956 (screenplay with Stanley Kubrick)
  • The Kill-Off , 1957
    - film: The Kill-Off, 1989, dir. by Maggie Greenwald, starring Loretta Gross, Andrew Lee Barrett, Jackson Sims
  • Wild Town, 1957
  • Paths of Glory, 1957 (screenplay with Stanley Kubrick and Calder Willingham)
  • The Getaway, 1959
    - Pakotie (suom. Ilkka Terho, 1973)
    - films: The Getaway, 1972, dir. by Sam Peckinpah, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw; The Getaway, 1994, dir. by Roger Donaldson, starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger
  • The Transgressors, 1961
  • The Grifters, 1963
    - Huijarit (suom. Mika Tiirinen, 1994)
    - film: The Grifters, 1990, dir. by Stephen Frears, starring Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle, written by Donald Westlake
  • Pop. 1280, 1964
    - Pottsville 1280 (suom. Mika Tiirinen, 1993)
    - film: Coup de Torchon/Clean Slate, 1981, dir. by Bertrand Tavernier, starring Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Stéphane Audran
  • Texas By the Tail, 1965
  • South of Heaven, 1967
  • Ironside, 1967 (novelization of television series)
  • Undefeated, 1968 (novelization of screenplay)
  • Nothing But a Man, 1970 (novelization of screenplay)
  • Child of Rage, 1972
  • King Blood, 1973
  • The Rip-Off, 1983
  • Hardcore: 3 Novels, 1986
  • More Hardcore: 3 Novels, 1987
  • Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson, 1988 (edited and introduced by Robert Polito & Michael McCauley)


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