A Swell-Looking Babe


Foreword by Duane Swierczynski

By Jim Thompson

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It was supposed to be only a temporary job — something to pay the bills until Dusty could get his feet back on the ground and raise enough money for medical school. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being a bellboy at a respectable hotel like the Manton — that is, until she came along.

Marcia Hillis. The perfect woman. Beautiful. Experienced. Older and wiser. The only woman to ever measure up to that other her — the one whose painful rejection Dusty can’t quite put from his mind.

But while Dusty has designs on Marcia, Marcia has an agenda of her own. One that threatens to pull the Manton inside-out, use Dusty up for all he’s worth and leave him reeling and on the run, the whole world at his heels.

A richly-imagined crime narrative of the Oedipal and betrayal, A Swell-Looking Babe is Thompson at his very best — a cornerstone in Thompson’s enduring legacy as the Dimestore Dostoyevsky of American fiction.


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Trapped on a Bus with the Savage Brain of Jim Thompson!

In late June 1997, a longtime dream came true: I was offered an editing job at a magazine in New York City.

At the time, I was in Allentown, Pennsylvania, working at Men's Health magazine, where I was the minority hire (i.e., the out-of-shape guy). The new gig would also prove to be a weird fit. I was to be the health/fitness/sex/food/drink editor for Details, the younger, hipper brother to GQ in the Condé Nast stable. I had the eating and drinking part down. The others… not so much.

Life circumstances prevented me from moving to NYC right away. So I spent two months taking a Carl R. Bieber (no relation to Justin) Tourways bus from Wescosville, PA, to Port Authority in NYC. Five hours, round-trip—a long slog through the guts of central New Jersey. There was no such thing as an iPod or iPad to eat up that time. No Twitter or Facebook, no Netflix or YouTube. Just me in a bucket seat, left to my own devices.

So every day at lunch I'd walk a few blocks to Shakespeare & Company on Broadway near Washington Place and buy a new book. I'd start reading it on the way home, then usually finish on the morning commute back. At lunch, I'd buy another book, and repeat the process.

For two months, I read a lot.

I read like coke fiends snort.

I read all of Raymond Chandler (except The Long Goodbye, which I'd read earlier that year) and Raymond Chandler Speaking. Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music; The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye; and Amnesia Moon. Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; Dance Dance Dance; and The Elephant Vanishes. Geoffrey O'Brien's Hardboiled America. John Ridley's Stray Dogs. Astro Teller's Exegesis. Fredric Brown's The Far Cry. And many others.

And then I found the best bargain of my book-buying life: Picador's Jim Thompson Omnibus 2, which contained five (five!) complete novels: After Dark, My Sweet; A Hell of a Woman; Savage Night; A Swell-Looking Babe; and Nothing More than Murder. One fat paperback… and I was set for the week!

I had no idea what I was in for.

Imagine, if you will, a twenty-five-year-old kid from Philly, crammed into a bus, surrounded by strangers, soaking his brain in the nightmare noirscape of Jim Thompson day in, day out, for one long, hot summer week.

It's amazing I didn't have a nervous breakdown and disappear into Hell's Kitchen for a year-long bender.

Mind you, I was no stranger to Jim Thompson. Six years before, I'd picked up Fireworks, a paperback collection of his short fiction (co-edited by Robert Polito, author of the brilliant Thompson biography Savage Art). I'd read The Killer Inside Me and The Grifters and a few others over the years. I was a big fan.

But nothing could have prepared me for the twenty-five hours (more than a part-time job, if you think about it) I spent in Jim Thompsonville.

Pretty sure I read the novels in order, which means that A Swell-Looking Babe (1954) popped up toward the end of the rotation after three other Thompson nightmares had primed me up. Rereading Babe now, in my early forties, I realize why I was so drawn to Thompson's downbeat "heroes." Usually they had lofty ambitions but were down on their luck. (See also the novels of David Goodis and Fredric Brown). Babe's hero, young college grad Bill "Dusty" Rhodes, was a lot like me at the time. A guy with a college degree under his belt, trying to impress the right people and deal with unpredictable and inexplicably bitter coworkers.

Now, a Greenwich Village magazine office is a far cry from the four-hundred-room (and four-hundred-bath!) hotel in East Texas, but my world felt an awful lot like Dusty's. I was still at the age where I gave a crap about what my parents thought. I was living with a woman (who would become my wife) for the first time. I had a job that paid well, but I was still being hounded by bill collectors from debt I'd racked up when I worked jobs that didn't pay nearly as well. In short: I was a newbie at adulthood, and those five Thompson novels were like a psychic booster shot, preparing me for an extended stay in New York City. Uncle Jim was there to let me know what was waiting for me. How the world really worked.

In short: the world is ready to screw you over at any given moment.

A Warner Brothers studio reader, after finishing A Swell-Looking Babe, typed the following memo to his studio boss: "Rough people, rough talk, and a liberal sprinkling of sex. The whole thing is downbeat and depressing, with not one sympathetic character in the cast."

Of course, that's what I loved about it.

That said, I'm fairly sure I ended Jim Thompson Week with a good stiff scotch and many, many cans of Yuengling lager. I might have moved on to dystopic science fiction or horror for a while—you know, something nice and light to help clear my head after a week in Thompsonville.

Later, when I read Polito's Savage Art, I felt an even deeper kinship with Thompson. While working at Details, I'd shuffle home every night to my Brooklyn apartment and try to crank out one thousand words of the cross-genre mess that would eventually become my first novel. Thompson, too, toiled at various men's magazines while moonlighting with his own fiction. I'm willing to bet we rode the same subway lines, staring off into strange faces, tinkering with a plot complication or two.

When I was a teenager, I played keyboards in my father's bar band—usually in Philly's rough-and-tumble Kensington neighborhood, where they filmed quite a bit of Rocky. Those bars were full of drunks, braggarts, drug dealers, hookers, factory workers, and people who just wanted to get drunk and listen to a cover band play Stones tunes. I watched them all, played my chord changes, and spent my breaks sipping Coke and plugging quarters into the Donkey Kong machine. I didn't know it at the time, but I was starting to gather the material that I would use in at least two of my novels.

Likewise, a seventeen-year-old Thompson worked as a bellboy at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth during the Roaring Twenties, when oilmen and cattle barons, flush with dough, checked into the hotel for heavy sessions of boozing, gambling, whoring, and sometimes all three. Thompson would channel these experiences into A Swell-Looking Babe, which had the working title What the Bellboy Saw.

But Thompson's experience wasn't limited to observation; the high school senior provided whatever service was required, often to the horror of his mother and sister. "I guess a lot of things went on in that hotel," Thompson's sister Maxine told Polito. "He used to tell us some of them when he came home, and it was horrifying." Officially, he earned $15 a month but ended up making $300 a week running liquor to guests, procuring dope, and/or summoning call girls for guests. When he wasn't working the night shift, Thompson was struggling to finish high school. He barely slept. Started drinking during this shift to get through it; continued drinking after school to help him fall asleep for a brief period.

From fall 1923 until summer 1925, his sister Freddie said, "He was eighteen going on fifty." The drinking and smoking got so bad that one summer night Thompson was asleep and didn't wake up until an ambulance rushed him to a hospital, a victim of nervous exhaustion, tuberculosis, and alcoholism.

Okay, so maybe that's where the comparison ends. I didn't take my first drink until college. And unlike poor Dusty, I didn't end up ensnared in the plans of gangsters or psychosexual Oedipal intrigue. Guess Thompson scared me straight.

Now turn the page, and let him do the same thing to you.

—Duane Swierczynski


He had dreamed about her. Now, waking to the sweaty southern night, he found both arms clasped around his pillow, the cloth wet with saliva where his mouth had pressed against it, and he flung it away from him with a mixture of disgust and disappointment. Some babe, he thought drowsily, his hand moving from bed lamp to alarm clock to cigarettes. A dream boat—and that's the way he'd better leave her. Right in the land of dreams. He had to keep the money coming in. He had to keep out of trouble. And he had been sternly advised, at the time of his employment by the Hotel Manton, that bellboys who attempted intimacies with lady guests invariably landed in serious trouble.

"This is what they call a tight hotel," the superintendent of service had explained. "A hooker never gets past the room clerk. Or if she does, she doesn't stay long and neither does he. It's just good business, get me, Rhodes? A guest may not be everything he should be himself, but he doesn't want to pay upwards of ten dollars a day for a room in a whore house."

"I understand," Dusty had said.

"We're not running any Sunday school, of course. As long as our guests are quiet about it, we'll put up with a little hanky-panky. But we don't—and you don't—mix into it, see? Don't get friendly with a woman, even if she does seem to invite it. You might be mistaken. She might change her mind. And the hotel would have a hell of a lawsuit on its hands."

Dusty had nodded again, his thin face slightly flushed with embarrassment. That had been almost a year ago, back before he had lost his capacity for being insulted, before he had learned simply to accept… and hate. He had thought the job only temporary then, something that paid well, without the business experience and references usually required in well-paying jobs. Mom had still been alive. Dad had stood a chance of being reinstated by the school board. He, Dusty, had had to drop out of school, but it would be only for a few months. So he had thought—or hoped. He was going to be a doctor, not merely a uniform with a number on it.

He had nodded his understanding, blushing, trying to cut short the interview. And the superintendent's face had softened, and he had called him by his first name.

"Are you sure you want to do this kind of work, Bill? I can fit you in as food checker or key clerk or something of that nature. Of course, it wouldn't pay nearly as much as you can make on tips, but…"

"Thank you," Dusty had said. "But I think I'd better take it, the job that pays the most money."

"Don't forget what I've said, then." The superintendent became impersonal again. "It's only fair to tell you, incidentally, that periodic checks are made on all our service employees."


"Yes. By women detectives—spotters, we call 'em. So watch yourself when some prize looker makes a play for you. She may be working for the hotel."

Dusty had mumbled a promise to watch himself. Until last night, he had strictly adhered to that promise. It wasn't because of any want of temptation. As the superintendent had pointed out, the Manton wasn't running a Sunday school. It was exclusive largely via its room rates. You didn't have to show a financial statement or a marriage certificate to get a room. The Manton insisted not so much on respectability as the appearance of it; its concern was for its own welfare, not the morals of its guests.

Actually, Dusty supposed, the Manton got more than its share of the fast crowd; they preferred it to hotels with lower rates and virtually no restrictions. In any event, more than one woman guest had given him some pretty broad hints, and he'd let them slide right on past. Not because they might be spotters. He just hadn't been interested. In his sea of troubles, there'd been no room for women.

Then, last night…

Dusty yawned, glanced at the clock, and swung his feet out of bed. For a moment he remained perched on the edge of the mattress, absently wiggling his toes against the semicool bare floor. Then he stood up and padded into the bathroom.

He took a quick cold shower. He came out of the shower stall, and began to shave.

Even with his face lathered, tautened and twisted to receive the strokes of the razor, he was good-looking, and, more important, intelligent-looking. As a youngster, when the other kids had dubbed him with such hateful titles as Pretty Boy and Dolly, he had detested those good looks. And while he had eventually become resigned to them, he had always resented them. They could get him nothing he wanted, nothing, with ten years of college study to complete, that he had time for. After all, he was going to be a doctor, not an actor.

A year ago he had gone to work at the Manton, and gradually, through the months since then, it had been borne home to him that he was never going back to college, that he would never be a doctor. But that had not changed his attitude about his appearance. It set him apart from the other employees, at once arousing their resentment and precluding the anonymity which he sought. It brought unwanted and dangerous attentions from certain of the women guests.

It spelled nothing but trouble, and he was already kneedeep in trouble.

Then, last night had come, and for the first time in his life he was glad that he was as he was. After he had seen her, after what had happened last night…

He dashed water over his face, dried it, stood frowning at himself in the medicine-cabinet mirror. Silently, he advised his image to forget last night. A dame like that didn't go for bellboys. She might tease you along a little, but that would be the end of it. Or if it wasn't the end of it, if you could actually get a tumble from her, what of it? Nothing. Just a big fat headache. He might not be able to drop her, and he certainly couldn't hang on to her. For something he couldn't really have—just a taste of something that would leave him hungrier than ever—he'd risk losing his job. Maybe something a hell of a lot worse than that.

He returned to the bedroom, and started to dress: gray trousers, black-and-white sport shoes, blue shirt and black tie. He donned a blue flannel coat, tucked a white handkerchief into the breast pocket. He buttoned the second button absently, still worrying. Step by step, he thought back over last night's events.

According to her registry card, her name was Marcia Hillis and she was from Dallas, Texas. Dusty supposed that she must have hit town on the 11:55 train since she arrived at the hotel a little after midnight, a few minutes after he had gone to work. He swung the cab door open for her, lifting her luggage from the driver's compartment. Then, he stepped across the walk to the lobby entrance, at this door without its doorman, and pulled open the door there.

Smiling perfunctorily, he turned and waited for her.

She finished paying and tipping the driver. She came out of the dark interior of the cab and into the bright lights of the marquee. Dusty blinked. His heart popped up into his throat, then bounced down into the pit of his stomach. He almost dropped her luggage.

Sure, he'd seen some good-looking women before, at the Manton and away from it. He'd seen them, and they'd made it pretty obvious that they saw him. But he'd never come up against anything like this, a woman who was not just one but all women. That was the way he thought of her, right from the first moment. All women—the personification, the refined best of them all. She was twenty. She was thirty. She was sixty.

Her face, with the serene brown eyes and the deliciously curling lips: she was twenty in the face but without the vacuousness which often goes with twenty. Her body, compactly mature, was that of a woman of thirty but with none of thirty's sometime flabbiness. Her hair was sixty, he thought of it that way—or, rather, what sixty is portrayed as being in story and picture. Completely gray. Gray, but soft and lustrous. Not the usual dead, crackling harshness of gray.

She wore it in a long gleaming bob which almost brushed the shoulders of her tailored suit. He stared down at it as she passed him, and then still half-dazed he followed her into the lobby.

Apparently she had something of the same effect on Bascom, the room clerk, that she had on him, for he was shoving a registration card across the desk and extending a fountain pen while she was still a dozen feet away. That was so unusual as to be unheard of. Dusty couldn't remember when Bascom had rented a room to an unescorted woman. He got a kick out of turning them down. With Miss Marcia Hillis, however, he was all welcoming smiles. Moreover, he did not treat her to an icy stare, as he usually did in such cases, when she hesitated over the price of the room.

"Well, now, of course," he murmured, with unaccustomed unction. "Fifteen dollars is rather high. I believe… yes, I do have one room at ten. I'll let you have that."

Bascom assigned her to a room with southern exposure on the tenth, the top, floor. It was at the end of the corridor, a considerable walk from the elevator, and not too large, but it was undoubtedly the best of the Manton's ten-buck rooms. The city got hot as hell at this time of year, and high-up rooms on the south were at a premium.

Dusty preceded her down the long thickly carpeted hallway. He unlocked the door, flicked on the light and gestured without looking at her. She went in, brushing against him slightly as he stooped to pick up her baggage.

He placed the luggage—a suitcase, hat box and overnight case—on a stand immediately inside the door. He turned on the bathroom light, tested the circulating ice water spigot and checked the supply of towels and soap. He came out of the bath, edged toward the corridor door.

Breathing heavily. Still not looking at her.

A little red flag in his mind was swinging for all it was worth. He didn't want any tip from her, only to get out of there before something happened that had better not happen.

"I hope you'll be comfortable, ma'am," he said, and he got his hand on the doorknob. "Good night."

"Just a moment," she said, firmly. "Don't I have a fan in this room?"

"You won't need one," he said. "You get a very nice breeze on this side of the hotel."

"Oh? Well, will you open the windows, please?"

That was just what he didn't want to do, because she was standing by the bed, between the bed and the chest of drawers, and that left very little room for him to pass her. And he knew, as well as he knew he couldn't trust himself far with this babe, that she wasn't going to move out of the way.

He hesitated for a moment, his eyes concentrating on a spot directly above that lustrous gray head, but of course he couldn't refuse. He squeezed past her hurriedly, so brusquely that her knees bent and she almost toppled backward to the bed. He flung the windows up, and the strong south breeze swept in… slamming the door.

He turned around, looking directly at her at last.

She was facing him now. There was a fifty-cent piece between the tapering fingers of her extended right hand.

"Thank you, very much," she said. "Who shall I call for—in case I want anything else?"

"I"—he licked his lips—"I'm the only bellboy on at night. You won't need to call by name."

She looked at him silently. She stared straight into his eyes, holding them, and came toward him. The extended hand lowered, went into the pocket of his trousers, placing the tip there. It remained there, deep in his pocket. "Dusty"—he blurted the word out. He had to do something, say something, before he exploded. "I m-mean it's Bill, but my last name's Rhodes so everyone calls me D-Dus—"

"I see." Her eyes narrowed drowsily, her hand still in his pocket. "What time do you get off work, Dusty?"

"S-seven. I work from midnight to seven."

"I'll bet you get awfully lonesome, don't you, roaming through a big hotel at night all by yourself? Don't you get lonesome, Dusty?"

"L-look," he stammered. "Look, Miss. I—"

"But you wouldn't be lonesome long," she said. "Not a guy who looks like you."

She leaned into him. Suddenly, because by God he couldn't help it, his arms went around her, right around those smoothly curving hips. And just as suddenly…

Just as suddenly she was standing six feet away from him. Over by the windows. And her voice and face were as cool as the insweeping breeze.

"Did I give you your tip?" she said. "I believe that will be all, then."

That brought him up short. It was as though he'd been jerked out of an oven and into an ice box. He turned toward the door, angry, disappointed, and also relieved. Nothing could come of a deal like this. She was trouble. He couldn't afford trouble.

He shivered a little, thinking of what might have happened if she hadn't turned frosty on him. Relieved that it hadn't happened. Empty-feeling and disappointed because it hadn't.

He reached the door. She spoke again, and again her voice was warm, drowsy, filled with promise.

"That will be all," she repeated. "Now."

Slowly, he turned around.

She was still standing by the windows, and the wind was swirling the long white curtains around her, draping the rich body, ruffling the lustrous white hair. There against the background of the night, molded by the wind-blown curtains, she was like one of those unbelievably beautiful manatees from the prow of some Viking vessel. Or, no that wasn't right; she was too alive for that. She was like one of those ancient goddesses who tired of their heavenly pleasures and came down to earth for the delights of Man. Venus. Ceres, the Earth Mother. All things that were woman, eternal but never aging.

"Now," she said. "Nothing else now, Dusty."

And she laughed in a gently mocking way.

He let the door slam behind him. Rather, he slammed it.

He cursed her all the way to the elevator.

It didn't seem possible, but almost fifteen minutes had passed since he'd left the lobby. Behind the long marble desk, Bascom beckoned to him grimly.

"Where have you been?" he snapped. "What were you doing up in that room all this time?"

"Had to get some towels from the linen room," Dusty lied. "I guess the maid must have slipped up."

"You're sure you didn't slip up?"

"Just the maid," Dusty grinned at him, "and possibly you."

Bascom's mouth tightened. His eyes shifted uncomfortably.

Like many first-class hotels, the Manton had very few rooms at its lowest advertised rate. In fact, in the case of the Manton, there were only six rooms which rented for the ten-dollar minimum. They were by way of being prizes, something to be doled out to long-time patrons of the hotel. Never, to the best of Dusty's recollection, had one been rented at night. They didn't have to be. A guest hitting town late at night could and would pay practically anything he was asked to.

Bascom had slipped, then. He'd made a double slip. He'd not only deprived the hotel of the extra revenue deriving from a more expensive room, but he'd also—potentially but inevitably—disappointed a preferred guest. The guest wouldn't like that—The day clerks wouldn't like it. The management wouldn't like it. In view of the Manton's room turnover, of course, Bascom's lapse stood every chance of going unmarked. But if Dusty should happen to mention it, very casually, needless to say…

Bascom turned on his heel and went up into the cashier's cage. After a moment, he called to Dusty to come help him with the transcript sheets. That was the way the matter ended.

Anyway, Dusty guessed—as he studied himself in the dresser mirror—he wasn't in any trouble. If she'd been a teaser, one of those dames who worked you into making a pass and then squawked to the management, she'd have done her kicking last night. It didn't take a woman seven hours to decide she'd been insulted.

He heard the screen door to the front porch open, and his father's dragging footsteps. He frowned, irritably, still thinking about her and hating this interruption.

Who was she anyway, this Miss Marcia Hillis, of Dallas, Texas? What was she? Not a hooker, certainly. She hadn't propositioned him, and you learned to spot a hustling woman fast around a hotel. It didn't make any difference how they dressed, how high-toned they acted. You could spot them a mile away.

She wasn't a spotter—a detective—for the hotel, either. If she had been, she wouldn't have quibbled over the room rate. There would have been no reason to since the house would pick up her bill.

A business woman, then? Nope, she didn't use the right lingo, and business people didn't arrive at a hotel late at night without reservations.

A tourist? No, again; there was nothing in this town to attract a tourist, and, at any rate, he just couldn't picture her as a sightseer.

One of the horse-racing crowd? Well, yes, she could fit in with them, the upper-class stratum of them which made Hotel Manton its headquarters. She could, but he knew she didn't. The racing season didn't start for at least two weeks.

Probably, Dusty decided, she was just a woman at loose ends. Hungering for adventure, but afraid of it. Wandering aimlessly from one place to another, with nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it in.

So… so what difference did it make? Whoever or whatever she was, he'd never let her get him into another spot like the one last night. If she tried anything like that again, and for all he knew she might have checked out during the day—he'd put a freeze on her that would give her pneumonia.

… There was a tired apologetic cough from the bedroom doorway.

Frowning, Dusty turned and faced his father.


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