The Grifters


Foreword by Andre Dubus

By Jim Thompson

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Jim Thompson's classic The Grifters is one of the best novels ever written about the art of the con, an ingeniously crafted story of deception and betrayal that was the basis for the critically acclaimed film by Stephen Frears and Martin Scorcese. 

To his friends, to his coworkers, and even to his mistress Moira, Roy Dillon is an honest hardworking salesman. He lives in a cheap hotel just within his pay bracket. He goes to work every day. He has hundreds of friends and associates who could attest to his good character.

Yet, hidden behind three gaudy clown paintings in Roy's pallid hotel room, sits fifty-two thousand dollars — the money Roy makes from his short cons, his "grifting." For years, Roy has effortlessly maintained control over his house-of-cards life — until the simplest con goes wrong, and he finds himself critically injured and at the mercy of the most dangerous woman he ever met: his own mother.


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"Art isn't on the surface, not some decoration like frosting, like a flower in your hair—it's a silk bag of pulverized crystal, glinting, sharp, able to cut in any direction."

This comes from the poet Vern Rutsala, and it's something Jim Thompson understood and spent his long, productive career doing, cutting us from the right and left, east and west, especially the west, the setting for this fever dream of a tale, The Grifters.

This harrowing novel came out in 1963, the same year as Thomas Pynchon's V., Mary McCarthy's The Group, and Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, and I would argue that Thompson goes as deeply and honestly into his dream world as Pynchon, McCarthy, and Vonnegut did theirs. On the surface, The Grifters is a novel about con artists, but like all resonant and lasting fiction, it moves the reader beyond the mere construct of story into the vision from which it came, and the vision here is vintage Thompson: bloody, bleak, deeply American, and, frankly, mesmerizing.

The Grifters was Thompson's twenty-first book in just under twenty years, and he is clearly working at the height of his powers here, beginning with young Roy Dillon stumbling out of a confectionary, bleeding internally from the butt end of a bat, one of his simplest cons gone wrong. Many writers of fiction just starting out are taught to "begin in the middle," but Thompson takes this crafty hook far deeper than mere action. After a cop has interrogated Dillon for throwing up out the window of his parked car, the cop assuming he's a drunk behind the wheel, Thompson brings us inside Dillon as he lights a cigarette:

He was in a suburb of Los Angeles, one of the many which resist incorporation despite their interdependence and the lack of visible boundaries. From here it was almost a thirty-mile drive back into the city, a very long thirty miles at this hour of the day. He needed to be in better shape than he was, to rest a while, before bucking the outbound tide of evening traffic. More important, he needed to reconstruct the details of his recent disaster, while they still remained fresh in his mind.

The voice here is intimately Roy's, but it is also the wiser, older voice of some winking uncle who knows a thing or two about trouble himself, and Thompson uses it to get inside Roy and his mother, Lilly Dillon, and Roy's lover, Moira Langtry, while also looking over their shoulders at the approaching shadows in the corners. It's what the third-person subjective point of view does so well, and nobody is better at it than Jim Thompson.

Listen to how deftly he captures the young Lilly, who decides to raise her son after hearing how much it would cost her to ship him off to a boarding school:

She was, of course, imbued with certain ineradicable instincts, eroded and atrophied though they were; so she had her rare moments of conscience. Also, certain things had to be done, for the sake of appearances: to stifle charges of neglect and the unpleasantness pursuant thereto. In either case, obviously, and as Roy instinctively knew, whatever she did was for herself, out of fear or as a salve for her conscience.

Lilly's conscience, however, is not so clear to see, for she is, after all, a con artist and a thief, one who has raised a child just like her, though Roy is tiring of the short con, the "hit and get," which makes men and women like him jump from one city to the next. In fact, he's been able to stay put in Los Angeles for years, working a front as a salesman, living trouble-free in an apartment where, behind three paintings of clown faces, he's stashed over fifty-two thousand dollars. Roy Dillon steals from hardworking, honest citizens and yet we find ourselves rooting for him, especially when Thompson gives us a glimpse of a less hardened Roy who yearns to change his life:

What a way to live, he thought resentfully. Always watching every word he said, carefully scrutinizing every word that was said to him. And never making a move that wasn't studiously examined in advance.… Needless to say, this state of things would not go on forever; he would not forever live a second-class life in a second-class hotel. In another five years, his grifted loot would total enough for retirement, and he could drop caution with the grift which impelled it.

"Man is his desire," Aristotle wrote, and Thompson understood that nothing is more engaging to a reader than trying to fulfill this desire along with those characters burning with it. It does not matter, of course, whether or not what they want, or how they get it, is moral. For at the heart of this sleek and unforgettable novel is a multilayered portrayal of deception, both of others and the self.

Not long after Roy is hurt with the butt end of that bat, Lilly hires a good-hearted nurse to care for her son, and she's struck by the young woman's innocence: "Lilly nodded gently, feeling a strange tenderness toward the girl. Here was something, someone, absolutely real and the reality was all to the good. Perhaps, under different circumstances, she might have turned out as wholesome and honest—and real—as Carol was. But—she shook herself mentally—to hell with that noise."

We live in a time when far too much fiction reads as if writers do not wish to offend anyone in any way, as if every main character should be as attractive and "relatable" and as likable as a loyal friend, that the reading of novels should be somehow virtuously entertaining. Well, "to hell with that noise"; here in his riveting tale, Jim Thompson reminds us where literature can and should go, into the dark heart of that universal and grasping human need for respect and comfort and acceptance, qualities of a first-class life for which his characters are willing to lie, cheat, steal, and even kill, for in The Grifters, Jim Thompson swings that pulverized bag of crystal on every page, cutting us, bruising us, and perhaps even making us grateful for what we hold dear here in the waking world.

—Andre Dubus III


As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.

Somehow, he got back to his car and managed to slide into the seat. But that was all he could manage. He moaned as the change in posture cramped his stomach muscles; then, with a strangled gasp, he leaned out the window.

Several cars passed as he spewed vomit into the street, their occupants grinning, frowning sympathetically, or averting their eyes in disgust. But Roy Dillon was too sick to notice or to care if he had. When at last his stomach was empty, he felt better, though still not well enough to drive. By then, however, a prowl car had pulled up behind him—a sheriff's car, since he was in the county rather than city of Los Angeles—and a brown-clad deputy was inviting him to step out to the walk.

Dillon shakily obeyed.

"One too many, mister?"


"Never mind." The cop had already noticed the absence of liquor breath. "Let's see your driver's license."

Dillon showed it to him, also displaying, with seeming inadvertence, an assortment of credit cards. Suspicion washed off the cop's face, giving way to concern.

"You seem pretty sick, Mr. Dillon. Any idea what caused it?"

"My lunch, I guess. I know I should know better, but I had a chicken-salad sandwich—and it didn't taste quite right when I was eating it—but…" He let his voice trail away, smiling a shy, rueful smile.

"Mmm-hmm!" The cop nodded grimly. "That stuff will do it to you. Well"—a shrewd up-and-down look—"you all right, now? Want us to take you to a doctor?"

"Oh, no. I'm fine."

"We got a first-aid man over to the substation. No trouble to run you over there."

Roy declined, pleasantly but firmly. Any prolonged contact with the cops would result in a record, and any kind of record was at best a nuisance. So far he had none; the scrapes which the grift had led him into had not led him to the cops. And he meant to keep it that way.

The deputy went back to the prowl car, and he and his partner drove off. Roy waved a smiling farewell to them and got back into his own car. Gingerly, wincing a little, he got a cigarette lit. Then, convinced that the last of the vomiting was over, he forced himself to lean back against the cushions.

He was in a suburb of Los Angeles, one of the many which resist incorporation despite their interdependence and the lack of visible boundaries. From here it was almost a thirty-mile drive back into the city, a very long thirty miles at this hour of the day. He needed to be in better shape than he was, to rest a while, before bucking the outbound tide of evening traffic. More important, he needed to reconstruct the details of his recent disaster, while they still remained fresh in his mind.

He closed his eyes for a moment. He opened them again, focussing them on the changing lights of the nearby traffic standard. And suddenly, without moving from the car—without physically moving from it—he was back inside the shop again. Sipping a limeade at the fountain, while he casually studied his surroundings.

It was little different from a thousand small shops in Los Angeles, establishments with an abbreviated soda fountain, a showcase or two of cigars, cigarettes, and candy, and overflowing racks of magazines, paperback books, and greeting cards. In the East, such shops were referred to as stationers' or candy stores. Here they were usually called confectionaries or simply fountains.

Dillon was the only customer in the place. The one other person present was the clerk, a large, lumpy-looking youth of perhaps nineteen or twenty. As Dillon finished his drink, he noted the boy's manner as he tapped ice down around the freezer containers, working with a paradoxical mixture of diligence and indifference. He knew exactly what needed to be done, his expression said, and to hell with doing a bit more than that. Nothing for show, nothing to impress anyone. The boss's son, Dillon decided, putting down his glass and sliding off the stool. He sauntered up toward the cash register, and the youth laid down the sawed-off ball bat with which he had been tamping. Then, wiping his hands on his apron, he also moved up to the register.

"Ten cents," he said.

"And a package of those mints, too."

"Twenty cents."

"Twenty cents, hmm?" Roy began to fumble through his pockets, while the clerk fidgeted impatiently. "Now, I know I've got some change here. Bound to have. I wonder where the devil…"

Exasperatedly, he shook his head and drew out his wallet. "I'm sorry. Mind cashing a twenty?"

The clerk almost snatched the bill from his hand. He slapped the bill down on the cash register ledge and counted out the change from the drawer. Dillon absently picked it up, continuing his fumbling search of his pockets.

"Now, doesn't that get you? I mean, you know darned well you've got something, but—" He broke off, eyes widening with a pleased smile. "There it is—two dimes! Just give me back my twenty, will you?"

The clerk grabbed the dimes from him, and tossed back the bill. Dillon turned casually toward the door, pausing, on the way out, for a disinterested glance at the magazine display.

Thus, for the tenth time that day, he had worked the twenties, one of the three standard gimmicks of the short con grift. The other two are the smack and the tat, usually good for bigger scores but not nearly so swift nor safe. Some marks fall for the twenties repeatedly, without ever tipping.

Dillon didn't see the clerk come around the counter. The guy was just there, all of a sudden, a pouty snarl on his face, swinging the sawed-off bat like a battering ram.

"Dirty crook," he whinnied angrily. "Dirty crooks keep cheatin' me and cheatin' me, an' Papa cusses me out for it!"

The butt of the bat landed in Dillon's stomach. Even the clerk was startled by its effect. "Now, you can't blame me, mister," he stammered. "You were askin' for it. I—I give you change for twenty dollars, an' then you have me give the twenty back, an'—an' "—his self-righteousness began to crumble. "N-now, you k-know you did, m-mister."

Roy could think of nothing but his agony. He turned swimming eyes on the clerk, eyes flooded with pain-filled puzzlement. The look completely demolished the youth.

"It w-was j-just a mistake, mister. Y-you made a m-mistake, an' I m-made a m-m-mistake an'—mister!" He backed away, terrified. "D-don't look at me like that!"

"You killed me," Dillon gasped. "You killed me, you rotten bastard!"

"Nah! P-please don't say t-that, mister!"

"I'm dying," Dillon gasped. And, then, somehow, he had gotten out of the place.

And now, seated in his car and re-examining the incident, he could see no reason to fault himself, no flaw in his technique. It was just bad luck. He'd simply caught a goof, and goofs couldn't be figured.

He was right about that. And he'd been right about something else, although he didn't know it.

As he drove back to Los Angeles, constantly braking and speeding up in the thickening traffic, repeatedly stopping and starting—with every passing minute, he was dying.

Death might be forestalled if he took proper care of himself. Otherwise, he had no more than three days to live.


Roy Dillon's mother was from a family of backwoods white trash. She was thirteen when she married a thirty-year-old railroad worker, and not quite fourteen when she gave birth to Roy. A month or so after his birth, her husband suffered an accident which made her a widow. Thanks to the circumstances of its happening, it also made her well-off by the community's standards. A whole two hundred dollars a month to spend on herself. Which was right where she meant to spend it.

Her family, on whom she promptly dumped Roy, had other ideas. They kept the boy for three years, occasionally managing to wheedle a few dollars from their daughter. Then, one day, her father appeared in town, bearing Roy under one arm and swinging a horsewhip with the other. And he proceeded to demonstrate his lifelong theory that a gal never got too old to whip.

Since Lilly Dillon's character had been molded long before, it was little changed by the thrashing. But she did keep Roy, having no choice in the matter, and frightened by her father's grim promises to keep an eye on her, she moved out of his reach.

Settling down in Baltimore, she found lucrative and undemanding employment as a B-girl. Or, more accurately, it was undemanding as far as she was concerned. Lilly Dillon wasn't putting out for anyone; not, at least, for a few bucks or drinks. Her nominal heartlessness often disgruntled the customers, but it drew the favorable attention of her employers. After all, the world was full of bimboes, tramps who could be had for a grin or a gin. But a smart kid, a doll who not only had looks and class, but was also smart—well, that kind of kid you could use.

They used her, in increasingly responsible capacities. As a managing hostess, as a recruiter for a chain of establishments, as a spotter of sticky-fingered and bungling employees; as courier, liaison officer, finger-woman; as a collector and disburser. And so on up the ladder… or should one say down it? The money poured in, but little of the shower settled on her son.

She wanted to pack him off to boarding school, only drawing back, indignantly, when the charges were quoted to her. A couple thousand dollars a year, plus a lot of extras, and just for taking care of a kid! Just for keeping a kid out of trouble! Why, for that much money she could buy a nice mink jacket.

They must think she was a sucker, she decided. Nuisance that he was, she'd just look after Roy herself. And he'd darned well keep out of trouble or she'd skin him alive.

She was, of course, imbued with certain ineradicable instincts, eroded and atrophied though they were; so she had her rare moments of conscience. Also, certain things had to be done, for the sake of appearances: to stifle charges of neglect and the unpleasantness pursuant thereto. In either case, obviously, and as Roy instinctively knew, whatever she did was for herself, out of fear or as a salve for her conscience.

Generally, her attitude was that of a selfish older sister to an annoying little brother. They quarreled with each other. She delighted in gobbling down his share of some treat, while he danced about her in helpless rage.

"You're mean! Just a dirty old pig, that's all!"

"Don't you call me names, you snot!"—striking at him. "I'll learn you!"

"Learn me, learn me! Don't even have enough sense to say teach!"

"I do, too! I did say teach!"

He was an excellent student in school, and exceptionally well-behaved. Learning came easily for him, and good behavior seemed simply a matter of common sense. Why risk trouble when it didn't make you anything? Why be profitlessly detained after school when you could be out hustling newspapers or running errands or caddying? Time was money, and money was what made the world go around.

As the smartest and best-behaved boy in his classes, he naturally drew the displeasure of the other kind. But no matter how cruelly or frequently he was attacked, Lilly offered only sardonic condolence.

"Only one arm?" she would say, if he exhibited a twisted and swollen arm.

Or if a tooth had been knocked out, "Only one tooth?"

And when he received an overall mauling, with dire threats of worse to come, "Well, what are you kicking about? They may kill you, but they can't eat you."

Oddly enough, he found a certain comfort in her backhanded remarks. On the surface they were worse than nothing, merely insult added to injury, but beneath them lay a chilling and callous logic. A fatalistic do-or-be-damned philosophy which could accommodate itself to anything but oblivion.

He had no liking for Lilly, but he came to admire her. She'd never given him anything but a hard time, which was about the extent of her generosity to anyone. But she'd done all right. She knew how to take care of herself.

She showed no soft spots until he was entering his teens, a handsome, wholesome-looking youth with coal-black hair and wide-set gray eyes. Then, to his secret amusement, he began to note a subtle change in her attitude, a softening of her voice when she spoke to him and a suppressed hunger in her eyes when she looked at him. And seeing her thus, knowing what was behind the change, he delighted in teasing her.

Was something wrong? Did she want him to clear out for a while and leave her alone?

"Oh, no, Roy. Really. I—I like being together with you."

"Now, Lilly. You're just being polite. I'll get out of your way right now."

"Please, h-honey…" Biting her lip at the unaccustomed endearment, a shamed flush spreading over her lovely features. "Please stay with me. After all, I'm—I'm y-your m-mother."

But she wasn't, remember? She'd always passed him off as her younger brother, and it was too late to change the story.

"I'll leave right now, Lilly. I know you want me to. You just don't want to hurt my feelings."

He had matured early, as was natural enough. By the time he was seventeen-going-on-eighteen, the spring that he graduated from high school, he was as mature as a man in his twenties.

On the night of his graduation, he told Lilly that he was pulling out. For good.

"Pulling out…?" She'd been expecting that, he guessed, but she wasn't resigned to it. "B-but—but you can't! You've got to go to college."

"Can't. No money."

She laughed shakily, and called him silly; avoiding his eyes, refusing to be rejected as she must have known she would be.

"Of course, you have money! I've got plenty, and anything I have is yours. You—"

" 'Anything I have is yours,' " Roy said, eyes narrowed appreciably. "That would make a good title for a song, Lilly."

"You can go to one of the really good schools, Roy. Harvard or Yale, or some place like that. Your grades are certainly good enough, and with my money—our money…"

"Now, Lilly. You know you need the money for yourself. You always have."

She flinched, as though he had struck her, and her face worked sickishly, and the trim size-nine suit seemed suddenly to hang on her: a cruel moral to a life that had gotten her everything and given her nothing. And for a moment, he almost relented. He almost pitied her.

And then she spoiled it all. She began to weep, to bawl like a child, which was a silly, stupid thing for Lilly Dillon to do; and to top off the ridiculous and embarrassing performance, she threw on the corn.

"D-don't be mean to me, Roy. Please, please don't. Y-you—you're b-breaking my heart…"

Roy laughed out loud. He couldn't restrain himself.

"Only one heart, Lilly?" he said.


Roy Dillon lived in a hotel called the Grosvenor-Carlton, a name which hinted at a grandeur that was wholly non-existent. It boasted one hundred rooms, one hundred baths, but it was purely a boast. Actually, there were only eighty rooms and thirty-five baths, and those included the hall baths and the two lobby restrooms which were not really baths at all.

It was a four-story affair with a white sandstone facade, and a small, terrazzo-floored lobby. The clerks were elderly pensioners, who were delighted to work for a minuscule salary and a free room. The Negro bellboy, whose badge of office was a discarded conductor's cap, also doubled as janitor, elevator operator, and all-around handyman. With such arrangements as these, the service left something to be desired. But, as the briskly jovial proprietor pointed out, anyone who was in a helluva hurry could hurry right on out to one of the Beverly Hills hotels, where he could doubtless get a nice little room for fifty bucks a day instead of the Grosvenor-Carlton's minimum of fifty a month.

Generally speaking, the Grosvenor-Carlton was little different than the numerous other "family" and "commercial" hotels which are strung out along West Seventh and Santa Monica and other arterial streets of West Los Angeles; establishments catering to retired couples, and working men and women who required a close-in address. Mostly, these latter, single people, were men—clerks, white collar workers and the like—for the proprietor was strongly prejudiced against unattached women.

"Put it this way, Mr. Dillon," he said, during the course of their initial meeting. "I rent to a woman, and she has to have a room with a bath. I insist on it, see, because otherwise she's got the hall bath tied up all the time, washing her goddamn hair and her clothes and every other damned thing she can think of. So the minimum for a room with a bath is seventeen a week—almost eighty bucks a month, just for a place to sleep and no cooking allowed. And just how many of these chicks make enough to pay eighty a month for a sleeping room and take all their meals in restaurants and buy clothes and a lot of frigging goo to smear on the faces that the good Lord gave 'em, and—and—You a God-fearing man, Mr. Dillon?"

Roy nodded encouragingly; not for the world would he have interrupted the proprietor. People were his business, knowing them was. And the only way of knowing was to listen to them.


  • "The best suspense writer going, bar none."—The New York Times
  • "My favorite crime novelist-often imitated but never duplicated."—Stephen King
  • "If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich would have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it...His work...casts a dazzling light on the human condition."—Washington Post
  • "Like Clint Eastwood's pictures it's the stuff for rednecks, truckers, failures, psychopaths and professors ... one of the finest American writers and the most frightening, [Thompson] is on best terms with the devil. Read Jim Thompson and take a tour of hell."—The New Republic
  • "The master of the American groin-kick novel."—Vanity Fair
  • "The most hard-boiled of all the American writers of crime fiction."—Chicago Tribune

On Sale
Aug 5, 2014
Page Count
224 pages
Mulholland Books

jim thompson

Jim Thompson

About the Author

Jim Thompson was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma. He began writing fiction at a very young age, selling his first story to True Detective when he was only fourteen. Thompson eventually wrote twenty-nine novels, all but three of which were published as paperback originals.

Thompson also co-wrote two screenplays (for the Stanley Kubrick films The Killing and Paths of Glory). Several of his novels have been filmed by American and French directors, resulting in classic noir including The Killer Inside Me (1952), After Dark My Sweet (1955), and The Grifters (1963).

Learn more about this author