Savage Night


By Jim Thompson

Foreword by Mark Winegardner

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Jake Winroy had no looks, no education, and little else before he’d worked his way to the top of a million-dollar-a-month horse-betting ring. But when the state’s latched onto his game, the feds take a bite and the lawyer fees eat away at the rest, all Jake’s got left is the bottle and a beautiful wife whose every word is ugly.

Jake’s to be the top witness in a major case against organized crime — if he hasn’t already kicked the bucket before the trial has its day in court. But an enigmatic mafioso known only as The Man has a plan to make dead certain Jake never gets the chance to testify.

The Man’s hired Charlie “Little” Bigger, a hit man barely five feet tall, to infiltrate the Winroy residence as a tenant and murder Winroy in cold blood. To Little, it seems like the easiest job on Earth. Until he lays eyes on the beautiful and dangerous Fay and the Winroy’s young housemaid Ruth, a woman as sensual as she is vulnerable. Savage Night is Jim Thompson at his most unpredictable and deeply suspenseful, in a claustrophobic thriller of one man’s fractured mind.


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I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York—three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man—hadn't helped it any. I felt lousy by the time I arrived in Peardale. For the first time in years, there was a faint trace of blood in my spit.

I walked through the little Long Island Railway station, and stood looking up the main street of Peardale. It was about four blocks long, splitting the town into two ragged halves. It ended at the teachers' college, a half-dozen red brick buildings scattered across a dozen acres or so of badly tended campus. The tallest business building was three stories. The residences looked pretty ratty.

I started coughing a little, and lighted a cigarette to quiet it. I wondered whether I could risk a few drinks to pull me out of my hangover. I needed them. I picked up my two suitcases and headed up the street.

It was probably partly due to my mood, but the farther I got into Peardale the less I liked it. The whole place had a kind of decayed, dying-on-the-vine appearance. There wasn't any local industry apparently; just the farm trade. And you don't have commuters in a town ninety-five miles from New York City. The teachers' college doubtless helped things along a little, but I figured it was damned little. There was something sad about it, something that reminded me of bald-headed men who comb their side hair across the top.

I walked a couple blocks without sighting a bar, either on the main drag or the side streets. Sweating, trembling a little inside, I set the suitcases down and lighted another cigarette. I coughed some more. I cursed The Man to myself, calling him every kind of a son-of-a-bitch I could think of.

I'd have given everything I had just to be back at the filling station in Arizona.

But it couldn't be that way. It was either me and The Man's thirty grand, or no me, no nothing.

I'd stopped in front of a store, a shoe store, and as I straightened I caught a glimpse of myself in the window. I wasn't much to look at. You could say I'd improved a hundred per cent in the last eight or nine years, and you wouldn't be lying. But I still didn't add up to much. It wasn't that my kisser would stop clocks, understand, or anything like that. It was on account of my size. I looked like a boy trying to look like a man. I was just five feet tall.

I turned away from the window, then turned back again. I wasn't supposed to have much dough, but I didn't need to be rolling in it to wear good shoes. New shoes had always done something for me. They made me feel like something, even if I couldn't look it. I went inside.

There was a little showcase full of socks and garters up near the front, and a chubby middle-aged guy, the proprietor, I guess, was bending over it reading a newspaper. He barely glanced up at me, then jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

"Right up the street there, sonny," he said. "Those red brick buildings you see."

"What?" I said. "I—"

"That's right. You just go right on up there, and they'll fix you up. Tell you what boarding house to go to and anything else you need to know."

"Look," I said. "I—"

"You do that, sonny."

If there's anything I don't like to be called, it's sonny. If there's a goddamned thing in the world I don't like to be called, it's sonny. I swung the suitcases high as I could and let them drop. They came down with a jar that almost shook the glasses off his nose.

I walked back to the fitting chairs and sat down. He followed me, red-faced and hurt-looking, and sat down on the stool in front of me.

"You didn't need to do that," he said, reproachfully. "I'd watch that temper if I were you."

He was right; I was going to have to watch it. "Sure," I grinned. "It just kind of gets my goat to be called sonny. You probably feel the same way when people call you fatty."

He started to scowl, then shifted it into a laugh. He wasn't a bad guy, I guess. Just a nosy know-it-all small-towner. I asked for size five double-A elevators, and he began dragging the job out to get in as many questions as possible.

Was I going to attend the teachers' college? Wasn't I entering a little late in the term? Had I got myself a place to stay yet?

I said that I'd been delayed by sickness, and that I was going to stay at the J.C. Winroy residence.

"Jake Winroy's!" He looked up sharply. "Why you don't—why are you staying there?"

"Mainly because of the price," I said. "It was the cheapest place for board and room the college had listed."

"Uh-huh," he nodded, "and do you know why it's cheap, son—young man? Because there ain't no one else that will stay there."

I let my mouth drop open. I sat staring at him, worried-looking. "Gosh," I said. "You don't mean he's that Winroy?"

"Yes, sir!" He bobbed his head triumphantly. "That's just who he is, the very same! The man who handled the payoff for that big horse-betting ring."

"Gosh," I said again. "Why I thought he was in jail!"

He smiled at me pityingly. "You're way behind the times, s—what'd you say your name was?"

"Bigelow. Carl Bigelow."

"Well, you're way behind on your news, Carl. Jake's been out for—well—six-seven months now. Got pretty sick of jail, I reckon. Just couldn't take it even if the big boys were paying him plenty to stay there and keep his mouth shut."

I kept on looking worried and kind of scared.

"Understand, now, I'm not saying that you won't be perfectly all right there at the Winroy place. They've got one other boarder—not a student, a fellow that works over to the bakery—and he seems to do all right. There hasn't been a detective around the house in weeks."

"Detectives!" I said.

"Sure. To keep Jake from being killed. Y'see, Carl"—he spelled it out for me, like someone talking to an idiot child—"Y'see Jake is the key witness in that big bookie case. He's the only one who can put the finger on all them crooked politicians and judges and so on who were taking bribes. So when he agrees to turn state's evidence and they let him out of jail, the cops are afraid he might get killed."

"D-did—" My voice shook; talking with this clown was doing me a lot of good. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. "Did anyone ever try it?"

"Huh-uh… Stand up a minute, Carl. Feel okay? Well, let's try the other shoe… Nope, no one ever tried it. And the more you think about it, the easier it is to see why. The public just ain't much interested in seeing those bookies prosecuted, as things stand now. They can't see why it's so wrong to bet with a bookie when it's all right to bet at the track. But taking bets is one thing, and murder is another. The public wouldn't go for that, and o'course everyone'd know who was responsible. Them bookies would be out of business. There'd be such a stink the politicians would have to stage a cleanup, no matter how they hated to."

I nodded. He'd hit the nail right on the head. Jake Winroy couldn't be murdered. At least he couldn't be murdered in a way that looked like murder.

"What do you think will happen, then?" I said. "They'll just let Ja—Mr. Winroy go ahead and testify?"

"Sure," he snorted, "if he lives long enough. They'll let him testify when the case comes to trial—forty or fifty years from now… Want to wear 'em?"

"Yeah. And just throw the old ones away," I said.

"Yep, that's the way it's working out. Stalling. Getting the case postponed. They've already done it twice, and they'll keep right on doing it. I'd be willing to bet a hundred dollars that the case never does get into court!"

He'd have lost his money. The trial was set for three months from now, and it wouldn't be postponed.

"Well," I said, "that's the way it goes, I guess. I'm glad you think it'll be all right for me to stay with the Winroys."

"Sure," he winked at me. "Might even have yourself a little fun. Mrs. Winroy is quite a stepper—not that I'm saying anything against her, understand."

"Of course not," I said. "Quite a—uh—stepper, huh?"

"Looks like she could be, anyways, if she had the chance. Jake married her after he left here and moved to New York—after he was riding high, wide and handsome. It must be quite a comedown for her, living like she has to now."

I moved up to the front of the store with him to get my change.

I turned left at the first corner, and walked down an unpaved side street. There were no houses on it, only the rear end of the corner business building on one side of the alley, and a fenced in backyard on the other. The sidewalk was a narrow, rough-brick path, but it felt good under my feet. I felt taller, more on even terms with the world. The job didn't look so lousy any more. I hadn't wanted it and I still didn't. But now it was mostly because of Jake.

The poor bastard was kind of like me. He hadn't been anything, but he'd done his damnedest to be something. He'd pulled out of this hick town, and got himself a barber's job in New York. It was the only work he knew—the only thing he knew anything about—so he'd done that. He'd got himself into exactly the right shop, one down around City Hall. He'd played up to exactly the right customers, laughing over their corny jokes, kissing their tails, making them trust him. When the smashup came, he hadn't swung a razor in years and he was handling a million-dollar-a-month payoff.

The poor bastard, no looks, no education, no nothing—and he'd pulled himself up to the top. And now he was back on the bottom again. Running the one-chair barber shop he'd started with, trying to make a little dough out of the Winroy family residence that was too run-down to sell.

All the jack he'd made in the rackets was gone. The state had latched on to part of it and the federal government had taken another big bite, and lawyers had eaten up the rest. All he had was his wife, and the dope was that he couldn't get a kind word out of her, let alone anything else.

I walked along thinking about him, feeling sorry for him; and I didn't really notice the big black Cadillac pulled up at the side of the street nor the man sitting in it. I was just about to pass on by when I heard a, "Psst!" and I saw that it was Fruit Jar.

I dropped the suitcases, and stepped off the curb.

"You stupid pissant," I said. "What's the idea?"

"Temper." He grinned at me, his eyes narrowing. "What's your idea, sonny? Your train got in an hour ago."

I shook my head, too sore to answer him. I knew The Man hadn't put him on me. If The Man had been afraid of a runout, I wouldn't have been here.

"Beat it," I said. "Goddam you, if you don't get out of town and stay out, I will."

"Yeah? What do you think The Man will say about that?"

"You tell him," I said. "Tell him you drove down here in a circus wagon and stopped me on the street."

He wet his lips, uneasily. I lighted a cigarette, dropped the package into my pocket and brought my hand out. I slid it along the back of the seat.

"Nothing to get excited about," he mumbled. "You'll get into the city Saturday? The Man'll be back, and—oof!"

"That's a switchblade," I said. "You've got about an eighth of an inch in your neck. Like to have a little more?"

"You crazy bas—oof!"

I laughed and let the knife drop down upon the seat.

"Take it with you," I said. "I've been meaning to throw it away. And tell The Man I'll look forward to seeing him.

He cursed me, ramming the car into gear. He took off so fast I had to jump back to keep from going with him.

Grinning, I went back to the walk.

I'd been waiting for an excuse to hand one to Fruit Jar. Right from the beginning, when he'd first made contact with me in Arizona, he'd been picking at me. I hadn't done anything to him—but right away he was riding me, calling me kid, and sonny. I wondered what was behind it.

Fruit Jar needed dough like a boar hog needs tits. He'd dropped out of the bootleg racket before the war and gone into used cars. Now he was running lots in Brooklyn and Queens; he was making more money legit—if you can call used cars legit—than he'd ever made with the booze.

But if he hadn't wanted to come in, why was he coming in so much farther than he had to? He hadn't needed to come down here today. In fact, The Man wasn't going to like it a bit. So… So?

I was still thinking when I reached the Winroy residence.


If you've been around the East much, you've seen a lot of houses like it. Two stories high but looking a lot taller because they're so narrow in depth; steep-roofed with a chimney at each end and a couple of gabled attic windows about halfway down. You could gold-plate them and they'd look like hell, but they're usually painted in colors that make them look twice as bad as they normally would. This one was a crappy green with puke-brown trimming.

I almost stopped feeling sorry for Winroy when I saw it. A guy who would live in a place like that had it coming to him. You know—maybe I'm a little nuts on the subject—you know, there's just no sense to things like that. I'd bought a little shack in Arizona, but it sure didn't stay a shack long. I painted it an ivory white with a blue trim, and I did the window frames with a bright red varnish.… Pretty? It was like one of those pictures you see on Christmas cards.

… I pushed the sagging gate open. I climbed the rickety steps to the porch, and rang the bell. I rang it a couple of times, listening to it ring inside, but there wasn't any answer. I couldn't hear anyone stirring around.

I turned and glanced around the bare yard—too goddamned lazy to plant a little grass. I looked at the paint-peeled fence with half the pickets knocked off. Then my eyes came up and I looked across the street, and I saw her.

I couldn't let on, but I knew who she was. Even in a jersey and jeans, her hair pulled back in a horse's tail. She was standing in the door of a little bar down the street, not sure whether I was worth bothering with.

I went back down the steps and through the gate, and she started hesitantly across the street.

"Yes?" she called, while she was still several steps away. "Can I help you?" She had one of those husky well-bred voices—voices that are trained to sound well bred. One look at that frame of hers, and you knew the kind of breeding she'd had: straight out of Beautyrest by box-springs. One look at her eyes, and you knew she could call you more dirty words than you'd find in a mile of privies.

"I'm looking for Mr. or Mrs. Winroy," I said.

"Yes? I'm Mrs. Winroy."

"How do you do?" I said. "I'm Carl Bigelow."

"Yes?" That broad-A yes was getting on my nerves. "Should that mean something to me?"

"That depends," I said, "on whether fifteen dollars a week means anything to you."

"Fif—Oh, of course!" She laughed suddenly. "I'm terribly sorry, Car—Mr. Bigelow. Our hired girl—our maid, that is—had to go home to her folks—a family crisis of some kind—and we were really expecting you last week and—and things have been in such a turmoil that—"

"Surely. Of course—" I cut her off. I hated to see anyone work so hard for a few bucks. "It's my fault, entirely. Can I make up for it by buying you a drink?"

"Well, I was—" She hesitated, doubtfully, and I began to like her a little better. "If you're sure you—"

"I can," I said. "Today's a celebration. Tomorrow I'll start tightening up."

"Well," she said, "in that case—"

I bought her two drinks. Then, because I could see she wanted to ask for it, I gave her thirty dollars.

"Two weeks in advance," I said. "Okay?"

"Oh, now," she protested, huskily, that well-bred voice hitting on all cylinders. "That's entirely unnecessary. After all—we—Mr. Winroy and I aren't doing this for money. We felt it was more or less our duty, you know, living here in a college town to—"

"Let's be friends," I said.

"Friends? I'm afraid I don't—"

"Sure. So we can relax. I hadn't been in town more than fifteen minutes before I knew all about Mr. Winroy's trouble."

Her face had gotten a little stiff. "I wish you'd told me," she said. "You must have thought I was a terrible fool to—"

"Will you," I said, "relax?" And I gave her my best grin, big and boyish and appealing. "If you keep talking about being in turmoil and a terrible fool and all that stuff, you'll get me dizzy. And I'm dizzy enough just looking at you."

She laughed. She gave my hand a squeeze. "Listen to the man! Or did you mean that the right way?"

"You know how I meant it," I said.

"I'll bet I look a fright. Honest to Hannah, Carl, I—Oop, listen to me. Calling you Carl, already."

"Everybody does," I said. "I wouldn't know how to take it if anyone called me mister."

But I'd like to try, I thought. And I'd sure try to take it.

"It's been such a mess, Carl. For months I couldn't open a door without a cop or a reporter popping out at me, and then just when I think it's finished and I'm going to have a little peace, it starts all over again. I don't like to complain, Carl—I really don't—but—"

She did like to, naturally. Everyone does. But a dame who'd lived on the soft money so long was too smart to do it.

She let her hair down just far enough to be friendly.

"That's certainly tough," I said. "How long do you plan on staying here?"

"How long?" She laughed shortly. "The rest of my life it looks like."

"You don't mean that," I said. "A woman like you."

"Why don't I mean it? What else can I do? I let everything slide when I married Jake. Gave up my singing—you knew I was a singer?—well, I gave that up. I haven't been in a night club in years except to buy a drink. I just let everything slide, my voice, my contacts; everything. Now, I'm not a kid any more."

"Now stop that," I said. "You stop that right now."

"Oh, I'm not complaining, Carl. Really I'm not… How about another drink?"

I let her buy it.

"Well," I said, "I don't know too much about the case, and it's easy for me to talk. But—"


"I think Mr. Winroy should have stayed in jail. That's what I'd have done."

"Of course, you would! Any man would."

"But maybe he knows best," I said. "He'll probably work out some big deal that'll put you higher on the heap than you were before."

She turned her head sharply, her eyes blazing fire. But I was all wide-eyed and innocent.

The fire died, and she smiled and squeezed my hand again.

"It's sweet of you to say that, Carl, but I'm afraid… I get so damned burned up I—well, what's the use talking when I can't do anything?"

I sighed and started to buy another drink.

"Let's not," she said. "I know you can't afford it—and I've had enough. I'm kind of funny that way, I guess. If there's anything that gets me, it's to see a person keep pouring it down after they've had enough."

"You know," I said, "it's funny that you should mention that. It's exactly the way I feel. I can take a drink or even three or four, but then I'm ready to give it a rest. With me it's the companionship and company that counts."

"Of course. Certainly," she nodded. "That's the way it should be."

I picked up my change, and we left the place. We crossed the street, and I got my bags off the porch and followed her to my room. She was acting a little thoughtful.

"This looks fine," I said. "I'm sure I'm going to like it here."

"Carl—" She was looking at me, curiously, friendly enough but curious.

"Yes?" I said. "Is there something wrong?"

"You're a lot older than you look, aren't you?"

"Now, how old would that be?" And, then, I nodded soberly. "I must have tipped you off," I said. "You'd never have known it from looking at me."

"Why do you say it that way? You don't like—"

I shrugged. "What's the use not liking it? Sure, I love it. Who wouldn't like being a man and looking like a kid? Having people laugh every time you act like a man."

"I haven't laughed at you, Carl."

"I haven't given you the chance," I said. "Suppose things had been different. Suppose, say, I'd met you at a party and I'd tried to kiss you like any man in his right mind would. Why, you'd have laughed your head off! And don't tell me you wouldn't, because I know you would!"

I jammed my hands into my pockets and turned my back on her. I stood there, head bowed, shoulders slumped, staring down at the threadbare carpet… It was raw, corny as hell—but it had almost always worked before, and I was pretty sure it would with her.

She crossed the room and came around in front of me. She put a hand under my chin and tilted it up.

"You know what you are?" she said, huskily. "You're a slicker."

She kissed me on the mouth. "A slicker," she repeated, smiling at me slant-eyed. "What's a fast guy like you doing at a tank-town teacher's college?"

"I don't really know," I said. "It's hard to put into words. It's—well, maybe you know how it is. You've been doing the same thing for a long time, and you don't think you're getting ahead fast enough. So you look around for some way of changing things. And you're probably so fed up with what you've been doing that anything that comes along looks good to you."

She nodded. She knew how that was.

"I've never made much money," I said, "and I figured a little education might help. This was cheap, and it sounded good in the catalogues. At that, I almost got right back on the train when I saw what it looked like."

"Yes," she said, grimly, "I know what you mean. But—you are going to give it a try, aren't you?"

"I kind of think I will," I said. "Now, will you tell me something?"

"If I can."

"Are those real?"

"Those? What—Oh," she said, and laughed softly. "Boy, are we slick!… Wouldn't you like to know, though?"


"Well—" She leaned forward, suddenly. Eyes dancing, watching my face, she moved her shoulders from side to side, up and down. And then she stepped back quickly, laughing, holding me away with her hands.

"Huh-uh. No, sir, Carl! I don't know why—I must be losing my mind to let you get away with that much."

"Just so you don't lose anything else," I said, and she laughed again.

It was louder and huskier than any of the others. It was like those laughs you hear late at night in a certain type of saloon. You know. The people are all in a huddle at one end of the bar, and they're all looking at this one guy, their lips pulled back a little from their teeth, their eyes kind of glassy; and all at once his voice rises, and he slaps his hand down on the counter. And you hear the laughter.

"Sweet"—she gave me another quick pat on the cheek—"just as sweet as he can be. Now, I've got to get downstairs and throw something together for dinner. It'll be about an hour from now in case you'd like to take a nap."

I said I might do that, after I'd unpacked, and she gave me a smile and left. I started stowing my things away.

I was pretty well satisfied with the way things were going. For a minute or two, I'd thought I was moving too fast, but it seemed to have worked out okay. With a dame like her, if she really liked you, you could practically throw away the brakes.

I finished unpacking, and stretched out on the bed with a true-detective story magazine.

I turned through the pages, locating the place I'd left off:

… thus the story of Charlie (Little) Bigger, the deadliest, most elusive killer in criminal history. The total number of his slayings-for-hire will probably never be known, but he has been officially charged with sixteen. He is wanted for murder in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit.


Little Bigger vanished as from the face of the earth in 1943, immediately following the gangland slaying of his brother and contact-man, "Big Luke" Bigger. Exactly what became of him is still a topic for heated discussion in police and underworld circles. According to some rumors, he died years ago of tuberculosis. Others would have it that he was a victim of a revenge murder, like his brother, "Big." Still others maintain that he is alive. The truth, of course, is simply this: No one knows what happened to Little Bigger, because no one knew him. No one, that is, who survived the acquaintance.

All his contacts were made through his brother. He was never arrested, never fingerprinted, never photographed. No man, naturally, who was as murderously active as he could remain completely anonymous, and Little Bigger did not. But the picture we get, pieced from various sources, is more tantalizing than satisfying.

Assuming that he is still alive and unchanged, Little Bigger is a mild-looking little man, slightly over five feet tall and weighing approximately one hundred pounds. His eyes are weak, and he wears thick-lensed glasses. He is believed to be suffering from tuberculosis. His teeth are in very bad condition, and many of them are missing. He is quick-tempered, studious, a moderate smoker and drinker. He looks younger than the thirty to thirty-five years which, according to estimates, he is now.

Despite his appearance, Little bigger can be very ingratiating, particularly in the case of women…

I tossed the magazine aside. I sat up and kicked off the elevator shoes. I walked to the high-topped dresser, tilted the mirror down and opened my mouth. I took out my upper and lower plate. I pulled my eyelids back—first one, then the other—and removed the contact lenses.

I stood looking at myself a moment, liking the tan, liking the weight I'd put on. I coughed and looked into my handkerchief, and I didn't like that much.

I lay back down on the bed, thinking I was sure going to have to watch my health, wondering if it would do me much damage when I started making love to her.

I closed my eyes, thinking… about her… and him… and The Man… and Fruit Jar… and this crappy-puke looking house and the bare front yard and the squeaking steps and—and that gate.

My eyes snapped opened, then drooped shut again. I'd have to do something about that gate. Someone was liable to walk by the place and snag their clothes on it.


  • "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
256 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