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Year End Review: A Few Thoughts on Jim Thompson and The Grifters

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite posts from the past year!

There are those moments in life so powerful and disturbing that they defy definition.  For me, Jim Thompson’s novels provide such moments.  Or maybe it’s more fair to say they knock me into them backwards—ass over applecart.

Apparently, I’m not alone in that.  Read what’s been said about Thompson, and you see that everyone is grasping: “If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich could have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it….His work…casts a dazzling light upon the human condition.”

This is the first quote about Thompson’s work that many readers encounter, the Washington Post blurb splashed on the back of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard editions that came out in the 1990s, after years when it was hard to find Thompson’s novels.  It’s evocative, and for fans of hard-boiled it has a dreamlike feel.  But ultimately it’s not very helpful.

Why?  Well, the problem with any definition that works by comparison is that it can only sketch around a thing: a chalk mark on a sidewalk, it misses the heart of the matter entirely—the heart that is so raw, so terribly visible, it forces you to work through analogy in the first place. “What does Hammett have to do with anything?” you might argue.  “There is none of his carefully-controlled and sleekly-styled disillusion here.  Surely the reviewer should have said Chandler, Cain, and Woolrich.  Or better, Cain, Woolrich and Chandler, in that order.”  In no time, what is Thompson’s is lost.

Yet such an approach is understandable, for to look at the heart of Thompson’s work… Well, it’s a hard place to look.  But in the end, the only way to get at it is to read, and then live with the consequences for a while.

Luckily, the new e-editions of Thompson’s novels from Mulholland Books will give you that chance.  With original introductions by top crime authors, they get to the heart of pulp so pure that you won’t even miss the feel of pulp under your fingertips.

Take the case of The Grifters, which is among my favorite Thompson novels. (That is, among those I’ve read. I still have others to go because Thompson is not someone whose work you can simply devour sequentially; or if you can, you have a stronger stomach than most.)  It’s the story of a triad of con artists: Lilly Dillon, who runs playback at the horse track for east coast mobsters; her son Roy Dillon, a short-con grifter so good at the basic tricks of the trade that he has managed to live at the same address for years without arousing suspicion; Moira Langtry, who throws her body (if not soul) into cons and is sometimes Roy’s lover and Lilly’s rival for his affections.  In each other, as in the world at large, they see an ever-shifting constellation of angles to be played: “Because grifters, it seemed, suffered an irresistible urge to beat their colleagues.”

One of the twisted pleasures that comes from reading the book is that we are always poignantly aware of the chasm between the simple financial profit each sees in the other and the rewards they might experience were they to focus on one another’s—or anyone else’s—humanity.  Time and again in their thinking, each sees the “something” before the “someone.”   It seems this is the defining characteristic of grifters, perhaps the only shared vision in their vastly different worldviews.

While many crime writers have cited Thompson’s fearlessness as an inspiration, I would suggest that he is a great novelist because he has such facility getting inside the thoughts of each character, and for that reason works his way into the reader’s head as well.  In other words, the power of his stories is not to be found at the (oft-discussed) operatic heights of his plots—the great taboos, the battles with the mob, the mad things people do—but in the deft clarity with which he reveals the tragedies of everyday living, as they take shape in our everyday thoughts.

Take this passage, the inner musings of a desk clerk at Roy Dillon’s cut-rate hotel who has just been on the wrong end of pointed remarks from one of Dillon’s lady friends (to avoid a spoiler, I won’t say which one):

Fumbling, he took the key from the rack and gave it to her.  Looking after her, as she swung toward the elevator, he thought with non-bitterness that fear was the worst part of being old.  The anxiety born of fear.  A fella knew that he wasn’t much good any more—oh yes, he knew it.  And he knew he didn’t always talk too bright, and he couldn’t really look nice no matter how hard he tried.  So, knowing in his heart that it was impossible to please anyone, he struggled valiantly to please everyone.  And thus he made mistakes, one after the other.  Until, finally, he could no more bear himself than other people could bear him.  And he died.

This is really all you need to know about The Grifters, or about Thompson’s work more generally.  I could relate to you the details of incestuous desires, love scenes that take shape at the crepuscular borders of pitch-dark sadism, infanticide.  But that would rob you of some of what you’re bound to feel when you read Thompson, and it would distract you from the very heart of what you’ve just read.  The all-too-human heart.

Some of Thompson’s characters might seem like inhuman monsters: Lilly Dillon in The Grifters, Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, Nick Corey in Pop. 1280.  In fact, British critic Nick Kimberly has characterized such Thompson creations as persons “for whom murder is a casual chore.”  I couldn’t disagree more strongly. They’re so full of life, and the awareness that it’s fleeting, that they’d do anything to hang onto it—even take it from others.  If they seem to take pleasure in that act, it’s the pleasure of knowing they’ll live another day, of knowing they’ll only answer to Life itself to the very end and certainly not to any mortal.  But that’s not really pleasure, and it’s anything but a “casual chore.”  It’s a poignant understanding that one must fight to live, and that living is the greatest suffering of all for it is the surest and most powerful reminder of slow, constant dying.

That is Thompson.  That is why you must read his work.  Be grateful you now have the chance to do so, even if it hurts a bit.

Shannon Clute is the co-author of The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism (Dartmouth College Press, 2011) and the co-creator of two popular podcast series: Out of the Past, Investigating Film Noir and Behind the Black Mask: Mystery Writers Revealed.  He works for Turner Classic Movies in Atlanta.

E-book editions of all of Jim Thompson’s novels are now available from Mulholland Books, with special price promotions in effect for The Grifters as well as The Kill-Off and A Swell-Looking Babe. Find out more at our dedicated Jim Thompson website.