Foreword by Joe R. Lansdale
By Jim Thompson
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Everything changes when Joe falls for the housemaid Carol, and the two can’t keep it a secret from Elizabeth. Elizabeth won’t leave Joe the theater unless he provides for her…but he’s put all his money into the show house.
Carol and Joe’s only hope is the life insurance policies they’ve taken out on each other. If one of them were to be presumed dead, they’d have more than enough money to solve all their problems…
No one knows murder better than Jim Thompson and in this incisive foray into the dark dealings of the mid-20th century movie industry, he doesn’t disappoint, in the riveting story of a love triangle gone horribly wrong, and just how far one man will go to hold on to a desperate dream.
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Jim Thompson has been called a dimestore Dostoevsky, but an oil-field Faulkner might be more accurate. He wrote not only about the common man, he wrote like the common man, with words full of raw truth mixed with sweet and sticky lies; wicked stories written with a glass of whisky at his elbow.
I had never heard of Jim Thompson growing up. And this surprises me. I read all manner of novels by all manner of writers—and a writer like Thompson was just my meat—but it wasn't until Stephen King commented on him that he hit my radar.
Not long after that, I saw Thompson's work everywhere, and I dove in. As a fellow Texan, I recognized people I knew in his work, same as I had in the work of Robert E. Howard, another Texan. Howard gussied them up in loin cloths and gave them swords, made them melancholy heroes, but Thompson's characters were contemporary and, though melancholy for the most part, were considerably short on heroics. They were the dregs of society, little people with dreams too large for them to hold, dreams they drove all over the highways of their ambitions like a drunk at the wheel of a muscle car with bad tires.
There is no one quite like Thompson in low or high literature. He was his own man, and stories like The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, and, well, pretty much everything he ever wrote are as unique as the pattern of a snowflake. They are his snowflakes, and they are soiled and stink of cheap liquor, but you will find no others like them. Many have tried to imitate him, but have only brought the literary equivalent of loud horns and dirty laundry to the game.
Thompson was his own man. Sad and dark, oozing rotten sex and rotten dreams, all of it touched with a cheap kind of carnival atmosphere, the kind where the bolts on the rides shake and it's best to keep your hand on your wallet. A writer primarily confined to the literary back alleys of cheap paperbacks, written in bursts as dynamic as the spewing of an oil gusher.
He was, for better or worse, the great and unique, Jim Thompson.
—Joe R. Lansdale
WANTED: Unencumbered woman for general work in out-of-town home. Forty to forty-five; able to wear size 14 uniform. Excellent wages, hours. Box No.—
I'll let you write in the box number," I told the girl behind the counter. "Have to let you do something to earn your money."
She smiled, kind of like an elevator boy smiles when you ask him if he has lots of ups and downs. "Yes, sir. What is your name, please?"
"Well," I said, "I'm going to pay for the ad now."
"Yes, sir," she said, just as much as to say you're damned right you're going to pay now. "We have to have your name and address, sir."
I told her I was placing the ad for a friend, "Mrs. J.J. Williamson, room four-nineteen, Crystal Arms Hotel," and she wrote it down on a printed slip of paper and stabbed it over a spike with a lot of others.
"That runs one word over three lines. If you like, I think I can eliminate a—"
"I want it printed like it stands," I said. "How much?"
"For three days it will be two dollars and forty-four cents."
I had a dollar and ninety-six cents in my overcoat pocket—exactly enough if Elizabeth had figured things right. I pulled it out and laid it on the counter, and fumbled around in my pants pocket for some change.
I found a quarter, two nickels, and a few pennies. I dropped them into my coat as soon as I saw they weren't enough, and reached again. The girl stared at my hands—the gloves—her eyebrows up a little.
I came out with a half dollar and slid it across to her.
"There," I said, "that makes it."
"Just a minute, sir. You have two cents change coming."
I waved my hand at her to keep it. I didn't want to try to pick up those pennies with my gloves on, and something told me she'd make me pick them up. I wanted to get out of there.
She hollered something just as the door closed, but I didn't turn around. I hit the street and I kept right on walking without looking back.
I guess I must have gone a dozen blocks, just walking along blind, before I realized I was being a chump. I stopped and lighted a cigarette, and saw no one was following me. It began to drift in on me that there really wasn't any reason why anyone should. I felt like kicking myself for letting Elizabeth plan the thing.
She'd insisted on my wearing gloves, which, I could see now, was a hell of a phony touch. She'd had me print out the ad in advance on a piece of dime-store paper, and that looked funny, too, when you put it with the other.
And then she'd figured out the exact price of the ad—only it wasn't the exact price.
I went on down the street toward film row, wondering why, since she always fouled me up, I ever bothered to listen to Elizabeth. Wondering whether I was actually as big a chump as she always said I was.
I wish now that I'd kept on wondering instead of plowing on ahead. But I didn't, and I don't think it proves I wasn't smart because I didn't.
When Elizabeth and I were married there was another show in Stoneville. It wasn't much of a house—five hundred chairs, and a couple of Powers projectors that should have been in a museum, and a wildcat sound system.
But it was a show and it pulled a lot of business from us, particularly on Friday and Saturday, the horse-opera nights. Not only that, it almost doubled the price of the product we bought.
In a town of seventy-five hundred people, you hadn't ought to pay more than thirty or thirty-five bucks for the best feature out. And you don't have to if you've got the only house. Where there's more than one, well, brother, there's a situation the boys on film row love.
If you don't want to buy from them, they'll just take their product across the street. And the guy across the street will snap it up in the hopes of freezing you out and buying at his own price the next year.
The fellow that owned the other house was named Bower. He's not around anymore; don't know what ever did become of him. About the time his lease came up for renewal, I went to his landlord and offered to take over, paying all operating expenses and giving him fifty per cent of the net.
Of course he took me up. Bower couldn't afford to make a proposition like that. Neither could I.
I gave Bower a hundred and fifty dollars for his equipment, which was a good price even if he didn't think so. Motion picture equipment is worth just about as much as the spot you have it in. It's tricky stuff to move; it's made to be put in a place and left there.
Well, Bower had about the same amount of stinker product under contract that I had. Part of it he'd bought because he couldn't help himself—we had block-booking in those days—and part because it would squeeze me.
Ordinarily, if he played it at all, he'd have balanced it up with good strong shorts. But there was a lot of it he couldn't have played on a triple bill with two strong supporting features.
What I did was to take his stinkers and mine and shoot 'em into the house, one after another. And I picked out shorts that were companion pieces, if you know what I mean. Inside of two months the house wasn't grossing five dollars a day.
The landlord was—he still is, for that matter—old Andy Taylor. Andy got his start writing insurance around our neck of the woods almost fifty years ago, and now he owns about half the county in fee and has the rest under mortgage. You could hear him crying in the next county when he saw what he was up against. But there wasn't a thing he could do.
He had the choice of taking twenty-five a month or fifty per cent of nothing, so you know what he took. I left the house standing dark, just like it is now.
No one but a sucker would think of trying to open a third house under the circumstances, and he wouldn't have anything to play in it if he did. I buy all the major studio product and everything that's playable from the indies. Our house is on seven changes a week, and we actually change four or five times. The rest of the stuff we pay for and send back.
Our film bill only runs about thirty per cent more on the week than it used to, and our gross is about ninety per cent more. Of course, we've got to pay rent on the other house, and the extra express and insurance charges plus paper—advertising matter—runs into dough. But we've done all right. Plenty all right. We've got the most modern, most completely equipped small-city house in the state, and there's just one guy responsible.
I only book a month at a time. But booking with me for a month is equal to booking with the average exhibitor for three months; and the boys on the row don't exactly throw rocks at me.
I like to never have got away from the Playgrand exchange.
The minute I stepped in the door they rushed me back to the manager's office, and he just pushed his work aside and reached for the drinks.
They had some shorts in that he wanted my opinion on, so after a while we went back into the screening-room, which is just like a little theater, and checked them over. They were good stuff, some of the brightest, snappiest shorts I'd seen in a long time. Even with all I had on my mind I enjoyed them.
I've known the manager of Utopian since the days when he was on the road, and it was pretty hard to get away from there, too. And we got to talking baseball over at Colfax; and at Wolf I had to sit in on another screening and have another couple drinks.
I almost didn't book anything at Superior.
They had a complete new setup from booker to manager, and none of them knew straight up. They didn't even know who I was. I gave the booker three feature dates and five shorts, and I explained about six times that that was all I had open for the month. But he wouldn't give up. He reached over and took my date book right out of my hands.
"Why, here," he said. "We've made a mistake, haven't we? We've got an open date next Sunday."
"I've got something planned for that," I said.
"Now, let's see," he said. "What can we give you there? What do you say to—"
"That date's taken," I said.
"We'll fix that, get the other pic set out for you. You don't want an inferior picture in a Sunday spot when we can give you—"
Well, I don't mind seeing a man try to do his job, and all the row guys are pretty fast talkers. I'm a shade fast myself. I've never poked my tongue in my eyes yet, though, and it's not because I close them when I talk.
I was about to tell him off in a nice way when the manager came out. He came up behind me and kind of worked his hand over my back like he was giving me a massage.
"Getting along all right?" he said. "Everything going to suit you, Mr. Barclay?"
I could feel myself turning red. "My name's not Barclay," I said.
"Oh," he said, stepping back a little, "I thought you were from Barclay Operating Company at—"
"I'm Joe Wilmot," I said. "I've operated Barclay for the past ten years. The property's in my wife's name. Okay?"
He let out with a silly laugh, trying to pass it over, and made a grab for my hand.
"Mighty glad you came in, Joe. Anything we can do here for you, just say the word."
"You can't do a goddamn thing for me," I said. "I won't pull out the dates I've given you because I'm in a hurry. But it'll be a hell of a long time before I give you any more."
"Now, Joe. Let's go back in the office and—"
"Go to hell," I said.
He and the booker both followed me to the door. I slammed it in their faces.
Every film row I've been around, there's at least one place like Chance Independent Releases, and one guy like Happy Chance. Not exactly, but you know what I mean.
They get ahold of maybe three or four features a year that you can throw in a middle-of-the-week spot, and a sex picture or two, and a few serials, and some stag-party shorts. They own the prints on the sex and stag stuff, and handle the other on commission for studios that don't have their own exchanges. Hap seemed to get by better than some of them, but Hap would. I've known him for more than twelve years, since he was working the booth in a grind-house, and I was driving film truck. And if he ever missed skinning anyone, I don't know when it was. He'd even skinned the Panzpalace chain; and when you skin a guy like Sol Panzer, who's run a ninety-three-house string up from a nickelodeon, you've got to be good.
I don't know why I liked Hap. Maybe it was the attraction of opposites, as they say in books.
"Glad you dropped in, laddie," he said, after we'd sat down and the drinks were poured. "Been thinking about popping out to see you. How are things with the Barclay?"
"What's the use of kicking?" I said. "You wouldn't believe me."
"No, seriously. You must be coining it. How many changes are you on, anyway?"
I grinned at him over my glass. "All I need, Hap."
"Some chap was telling me the other day you were on more changes than any house in the state."
"I could be; I've got the product. I don't often make more than four a week though."
"Playing shutout with the rest?"
"That wouldn't be legal," I said. "They call that acting in restraint of trade."
"Uh-hah," he drawled. "Certainly. I should know you wouldn't be involved in anything like that."
"The town's wide open to anyone that wants to come in," I said. "I'll run all the good pix in the Barclay and all the stinkers in the Bower, and split the rest with the competition."
"Uh-hah!" Hap let out a chuckle. "What's your house worth there, laddie, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Well, let's see. Ten times the annual return—between seventy-five and a hundred grand."
"It wouldn't possibly be worth a million, would it?"
"Not without a Sunday-night audience. We've got some good-looking gals out there."
"Just so, just so," he said.
"What's on your mind? Got a buyer for me?"
"We-ell—" He hesitated, frowning, plucking at the sleeve of his tweed suit. Hap goes for the English stuff right on down the line. And it doesn't suit him so bad—or so good. He sat there all diked out and talking like a duke; and he turned his head a little and spit, and rubbed it into the carpet with one of his saddle-soaped shoes.
I wanted to laugh, but I knew I hadn't better. Hap isn't a good guy to have sore at you.
"Well, how about it?" I said.
"I guess not, laddie." He sighed and shook his head. "The proposition isn't quite big enough."
He looked at me a minute or two longer, and I thought he was going to say something more. But he didn't, and I didn't prod him. It wouldn't have done any good, and I thought I could see his angle, anyway.
"By the way," I said, "what'd you ever do with that sixteen-reeler? What do you call it—'Jeopardy of the Jungle'?"
Hap shrugged. "Oh, that goddamn thing! Why, it hasn't been out of the can in months, laddie. It—" He broke off and gave me a sharp look. "Oh, you mean 'Jeopardy of the Jungle'!" he said. "It's going like wildfire. It's booked practically solid for the next three months."
I did laugh then. This was business, and I could.
"There aren't that many penitentiaries in the country," I said.
"Word of honor, Joe. The way it's been pulling 'em in even surprises me. You know I didn't care for it myself, even if it did have Gable and Bergman—"
"Yeah. A ten-frame shot of them sitting in the Stork Club. And what it has to do with the picture nobody knows."
"—but you can't argue with the b.o., Joe. The box office doesn't lie. Did you see last month's grosses in the Herald? The Empire grossed seven grand on 'Jep' the first—"
"I saw it," I said. "The only other attraction was Tommy Dorsey's orchestra."
"Let me show you something, Joe! Let me get out the Herald. I can show you small-city grosses for two days during the fall—"
"What two? Thanksgiving and Labor Day?"
"Okay," he said, "so it stinks."
"You know it does."
"But you want it."
"Well—" I said. And then I swallowed, and it was just like I'd forgotten how to talk.
A puzzled grin spread over Happy's face.
"Yeah," he said, "you want it. But why? You've already got more stuff than you can use. Tell Hap why you want it, laddie."
"Hell," I said, "use your head, Hap. This is the end of the season. We always get down toward the bottom of the pot at this time of year."
"Ordinarily I do have more product than I can play, but I've already let it go back. I don't have to have 'Jep.' I just thought I saw a nice spot for it next Sunday."
" 'Jep' on Sunday?"
"Okay," I said, "I'm dumb. I was holding the spot for Superior, but they got me sore and I walked out."
He looked disappointed but not as much as I'd like to have seen him. There were still traces of that puzzled grin.
We settled on a price, and I got up to leave; and I stepped into it again right up to my neck.
"Aren't you forgetting something, old man?"
"You mean you want your rental now?" I said. "I don't play that way; I pay on delivery. You know that, Hap."
He shook his head.
"Well, what do you mean?"
"Paper," he said, as though he were talking to someone else. "First he books a stinker for Sunday, and then he starts to leave without so much as a one-sheet. Why would Joe Wilmot forget to buy paper?"
"I'll be damned," I said. "I guess that Superior crowd did get me upset."
"Uh-hah," he said. "Mmm."
I was so rattled that I let him sell me twice as much paper as I usually use. A dozen three-sheets, eighteen ones, and two twenty-fours. That and fifty window cards and the stuff for my lobby display.
I was shivering as I walked back to the hotel. Even thinking about Carol couldn't warm me up.
It was a Saturday morning, a little over a year ago, when I first saw Carol. We had a kids' matinee coming up at eleven o'clock and I was in the projection booth screening some stuff. I'd just made a change-over, and was putting a roll of film on the rewind.
Elizabeth waited for me to look around, but she finally saw I wasn't going to.
"This is Carol Farmer, Joe," she said. "She's going to stay with us."
"That's fine," I said, keeping my eye on the film.
"Our ladies' aid group is helping Carol attend business college," Elizabeth went on, "and she needed someplace to cut down on expenses. I think we can use her very handily around the house, don't you?"
I still didn't look around. "Why not?"
"Thank you, dear," said Elizabeth, opening the door. "Come along, Carol. Mr. Wilmot has given you his approval."
I knew that she was laughing. She'd only brought Carol there to show me up. She didn't need my approval for anything.
Well, though, I passed old Doc Barrow, who runs the business college, on the street that afternoon; and he thanked me for being so generous in taking Carol in. I began to feel a little better, and kind of ashamed of the way I'd acted. Not on Elizabeth's account but Carol's.
She was about twenty-five and she'd spent most of her life on a two-by-four farm down in the sand flats, raising a bunch of brothers and sisters that ran off as soon as they got big enough to be any help. Her father was serving a five-year stretch for stealing hogs. Her mother was dead. Now, she was starting out to try to make something of herself.
We were changing programs the next day, and it was after midnight when I got home. But Carol was still up. She was sitting out at the kitchen table with a lot of books spread in front of her, and you could tell they didn't mean a thing to her. Not as much even as they would have to me.
She jumped up, all scared and trembling, like I'd caught her stealing. Her face got red, then white, and she snatched up a dish towel and began scrubbing at the table.
"Take it easy, kid," I said. "You're not on twenty-four-hour duty around here."
She didn't say anything; I don't guess she could. She stood watching me a minute, then she snatched up her books and sort of scuttled over to a corner and sat down on a stool.
She pretended to be studying, but I knew she wasn't. I knew it because I knew how she felt—because I'd felt the same way. I knew what it meant to be nothing and to want to be something. And to be scared out of your pants that someone is going to knock you down—not because of what you've done but because you can't strike back. Because they want to see you squirm, or they have a headache, or they don't like the way your hair is parted.
I opened the refrigerator door and took a look inside. It was full, as usual, with the leftover junk that passes for food with Elizabeth. Little plates of salad, bowls of consommé, sauce dishes of fruit, and nonfattening desserts. But way back in the rear I spotted a baked ham and a chocolate cake.
I took them over to the table, along with some bread and butter and a bottle of milk.
"You ain't—you're not supposed to eat that, Mr. Wilmot."
"Huh?" I almost dropped the carving knife.
"Huh-uh. I mean, no, sir. Mrs. Wilmot said that was for tomorrow."
"Well," I said, "ain't that just dandy?"
"Yes, sir. There's some soup on the stove. That's what I—we—what we're supposed to have tonight."
I didn't argue about it. I just went over to the cupboard and got two plates, and I filled one of them so full it needed sideboards.
"Now, come over here," I said, "and eat this. Eat every damned bit of it. If there's any holler I'll say I did it."
Christ, I wish you could have seen her! She must have been empty all the way down. She didn't hog the food. She just sat and ate steadily, like she was going at a big job that needed doing. And she didn't mind my watching her. She seemed to know that I'd been the same way myself.
When she'd finished I told her to take her books and go to bed; and she said, "Yes, sir," and took off.
It made me a little uncomfortable for anyone to be so obedient, and yet I can't say I didn't like it, either. And it wasn't because I ever thought about telling her to do anything, well, anything bad. I just couldn't see the gal that way. I couldn't see her at all, if you know what I mean. If there was ever a woman that you wouldn't look at twice she was it. Probably she still is.
Because the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that I'm seeing something that no one else can. And it took me three months before I could see it.
It was a Sunday afternoon. Elizabeth had taken her car and gone visiting, and I was lying down. We don't operate the house on Sunday afternoon. Local sentiment's against it.
There was a knock on my door, and I said, "Come in, Carol," and she came in.
"I just wanted to show you the new suit Mrs. Wilmot gave me," she said.
I sat up. "It looks very nice, Carol."
I don't know which I wanted to do most, laugh or cry.
She was a little bit cockeyed—maybe I didn't tell you? Well. And she was more than a little pigeon-toed. The suit wasn't new. It was a worn-out rag Elizabeth had given her to make over, and she'd botched it from top to bottom. And she had on a pair of Elizabeth's old shoes that didn't fit her half as well as mine would.
The blouse was too tight for her breasts, or her breasts were too big for the blouse, however you want to put it. They were too big for anything but an outsize. A good deep breath and she'd have had to start dodging.
I felt the tears coming into my eyes, and yet I wanted to laugh, too. She looked like hell. She looked like a sack of bran that couldn't decide which way it was going to fall.
And then the curtain rose or however you want to put it, and everything was changed.
And what I began to think about wasn't laughing or crying.
That tiny bit of cockeyedness gave her a cute, mad look, and the way she toed in sort of spread her buttocks and made a little valley under her skirt, and—and it don't—doesn't—make sense but there was something about it that made me think of the Twenty-Third Psalm.
I'd thought she looked awkward and top-heavy, and, hell, I could see now that she didn't at all. Her breasts weren't too big. Jesus, her breasts!
She looked cute-mad and funny-sweet. She looked like she'd started somewhere and been mussed up along the way.
She was a honey. She was sugar and pie. She was a bitch.
I said, "Come here, Carol," and she came there.
And then I was kissing her like I'd been waiting all my life to do just that, and she was the same way with me.
I don't know how long it was before I looked up and saw Elizabeth in the doorway.
I always stop at the Crystal Arms when I'm in the city. They know I pay for what I get, and no questions, and whenever they can do me a favor they don't hold back.
There wasn't anything in my room box but a few complimentary theater tickets. I gave them to the bell captain and took the elevator upstairs. The heat was just being turned on full, and the room was a little chilly. I dragged a chair up to the radiator and sat down with my coat and hat on.
I wasn't worried. Not too much. I guess I just had a touch of the blues. I had everything in the world to look forward to, and I had the blues. I got out part of a pint I had in my Gladstone, and sat down again.
The lights were coming on, blobbing through the misty night haze that hung over the city. Over in the yards a freight gave out with a highball. I took a drink and closed my eyes. I tried to imagine it was fifteen years ago, and I was on the freight, and I was looking at the city for the first time. And I thought, Hell, if you had to be blue why not then instead of now?
- "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
- Dec 25, 2011
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Mulholland Books