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The Killer Inside Me
Foreword by Stephen King
By Jim Thompson
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Everyone in the small town of Central City, Texas loves Lou Ford. A deputy sheriff, Lou's known to the small-time criminals, the real-estate entrepreneurs, and all of his coworkers — the low-lifes, the big-timers, and everyone in-between — as the nicest guy around. He may not be the brightest or the most interesting man in town, but nevertheless, he's the kind of officer you're happy to have keeping your streets safe. The sort of man you might even wish your daughter would end up with someday.
But behind the platitudes and glad-handing lurks a monster the likes of which few have seen. An urge that has already claimed multiple lives, and cost Lou his brother Mike, a self-sacrificing construction worker fell to his death on the job in what was anything but an accident. A murder that Lou is determined to avenge — and if innocent people have to die in the process, well, that's perfectly all right with him.
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"WARNING! WARNING! HITCHHIKERS MAY BE ESCAPED LUNATICS!"
When a sign like this appears by the side of the road in the nightmare world of Jim Thompson, no one even comments on it… which may be one of the reasons that Thompson's work is still worth reading some forty years after it first began to be published. When first released, his novels appeared almost exclusively as paperback originals, just a few more titles in a flood of fiction unleashed by the popular new "pocketbook" format. Most of the others published in the late forties and fifties have long since been buried in the dustheap of the years, but Thompson is still being read… more than when he was alive and in his prime. We are, in fact, in the midst of a small Thompson revival: almost all his novels are in print in paperback; two collections of three novels each are available from Donald Fine under the title HardCore, and a book of his uncollected prose, Fireworks, has been issued.
Amazingly, almost all his books hold up as "good reads." More amazingly, two or three (Pop. 1280, The Grifters, and The Getaway would be my nominees) hold up as "good American novels of their time." And one, this one, remains as timeless and as important as it ever was. The Killer Inside Me is an American classic, no less, a novel that deserves space on the same shelf with Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Sun Also Rises, and As I Lay Dying. Thompson's other books are either good or almost great, but all of them pale before the horrifying, mesmerizing story of Lou Ford, that smiling good ol' Texas boy who would rather beat you to death with clichés than shoot you with a .44… But if the clichés don't do the job, he is not afraid to pick up the gun. And use it.
Before Kerouac, before Ginsberg, before Marlon Brando in The Wild One ("What are you boys rebelling against?" "What have you got?") or Yossarian in Catch-22, this anonymous and little-read Oklahoma novelist captured the spirit of his age, and the spirit of the twentieth century's latter half: emptiness, a feeling of loss in a land of plenty, of unease amid conformity, of alienation in what was meant, in the wake of World War II, to be a generation of brotherhood.
The subject suffers from strong feelings of guilt… combined with a sense of frustration and persecution… which increase as he grows older; yet there are rarely if ever any surface signs of… disturbance. One the contrary, his behavior appears to be entirely logical. He reasons soundly, even shrewdly. He is completely aware of what he does and why he does it…
Lou Ford digs the above quote out of a psychology textbook by "a guy… name of Kraeplin" as his story winds toward its inevitable conclusion. I have no idea if Mr. Kraeplin is real or another product of Thompson's imagination, but I do know that the description fits a lot more people than one mentally disturbed deputy sheriff in a crossroads Texas town. It describes a generation of killers, from Caryl Chessman to Lee Harvey Oswald to John Wayne Gacy to Ted Bundy. Looking back at the record, one would have to say that it also describes a generation of politicians: Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Oliver North, Alexander Haig, and a slew of others. In Lou Ford, Jim Thompson drew for the first time a picture of the Great American Sociopath.
It's not that Lou Ford is a killer without a conscience; it would be almost comforting if he were. But Lou Ford likes people. He goes out of his way to help Johnnie Pappas, son of the Central City restaurant owner and the local wild child. And when Lou breaks Johnnie's neck and hangs him from his jail cell to turn murder into something that looks like suicide, he does it with great and genuine sadness.
Yet when Lou leads Elmer Conway into the trap he has carefully constructed, and when Conway gets his first good look at the bait in that trap—the bludgeoned, grisly body of a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland—Lou begins to laugh, taking an extraordinary, vicious pleasure in both the battered woman and Conway's reaction to her.
I laughed—I had to laugh or do something worse—and his eyes squeezed shut and he bawled. I yelled with laughter, bending over and slapping my legs. I doubled up, laughing and farting and laughing some more. Until there wasn't a laugh in me or anyone. I'd used up all the laughter in the world.
That Thompson was largely ignored by both the general reading public and the critics of his day can be taken as a foregone conclusion, I think, from the above sample of Thompson's nitro-and-battery-acid style. In a year (1952) when Ozzie and Harriet were America's favorite postwar couple and Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, a novel about the ultimate victory of rationality over cowardice and insanity, was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for literature, no one really wanted to deal with this picture of a murderer so happy in his work that he laughs and farts before shooting the bewildered and drunken Conway to death with six bullets at point-blank range.
Nor does Thompson allow us the comfort of believing that Deputy Lou Ford is a mutant, a sport, an isolated aberration. In one of the classic passages of the novel, Thompson suggests just the opposite, in fact—that there are Lou Fords everywhere:
I've loafed around the streets sometimes, leaned against a store front with my hat pushed back and one boot hooked back around the other—hell, you've probably seen me if you've ever been out this way—I've stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn't piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I'm laughing myself sick inside. Just watching people.
The fact is, we've all seen guys who fit the description exactly, right down to the goofy smile and the CASE gimme cap tilted back on the head. The honest—if a little dopey—eyes, the sincere smile. We just know the first thing out of this fellow's mouth is going to be "Howya doon?" and the last thing out is going to be "Have a nice day." Jim Thompson wants us to spend the rest of our lives wondering what's behind those smiles (and if you think the smiling villains don't exist, take a good close look at a picture of Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, two real-life Lou Fords). In Jim Thompson's world, the signs warn of possible escaped lunatics instead of crossing wildlife, and Deputy Barney Fife is a raving psychotic.
There's nothing elegant in The Killer Inside Me. In fact, one of my chief amazements on rereading it was how much Thompson got away with (or how much Lion Books let him get away with) in an era when showing a woman in a bra was verboten in American movies and you could—theoretically, at least—go to jail for owning a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover.
In lots of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He'll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babble about stars flashing and sinking into a deep dreamless sea. And you can't figure out whether the hero's laying his girl or a cornerstone. I guess that kind of crap is supposed to be pretty deep stuff—a lot of book reviewers eat it up, I notice. But the way I see it is, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his job. And I'm not lazy, whatever else I am. I'll tell you everything.
He does, too, including some things we're not sure we wanted to hear once we've heard them. And he tells us in amazingly blunt, no-holds-barred language.
"The next son-of-a-bitch they send out here is going to get kicked so hard he'll be wearing his asshole for a collar."
"Well, whenever it gets too bad, I just step out and kill a few people. I frig them to death with a barbed-wire cob I have."
"One of those girls that makes you want to take off your shoes and wade around in her."
Why, pardner that's… easy as nailing your balls to a stump and falling off backwards.
And my own favorite among Thompson's assortment of picnic crudités:
There'd be all sorts of things to attend to, and discuss.… Even the size of the douche bag to take along on our honeymoon!
Some of these vulgarities are harsh enough to be startling even to readers who have become relatively inured to rough talk; they must have really "laid them by the heels," as Lou Ford likes to say, in 1952. Leslie Fiedler suggests in Love and Death in the American Novel that language itself is far less important than the spirit with which that language has been imbued, and even after all these years, the language Thompson employs to tell Deputy Ford's story has a kind of starey, socketed ugliness that rasps across our minds like stiff wire bristles. There is nothing pornographic in it, however; quite the opposite. In his introduction to Thompson's work (which is printed at the front of all the Black Lizard editions of Thompson's novels), Barry Gifford observes:
He can be an excellent writer, capable of creating dialogue as crisp as Hammett's, descriptive prose as convincing as Chandler's. But then, all of a sudden, there will come two or three successive chapters of throwaway writing more typical of the paperback original Trash and Slash school of fiction.
This is a perfectly fair assessment of most of Thompson's books. The reason, I think, is the same one even such good line-by-line writers as John D. MacDonald, David Goodis, and Donald E. Westlake (who spent that period writing under only God and Westlake himself know how many names) sometimes lapsed into fits of hackery: the big paperback machine was hungry, it needed to be fed, and the pay was so low you had to write a lot of prose to make a living wage. Books were often written in a month, sometimes in two weeks, and Thompson himself boasted that he had written two of his titles in forty-eight-hour stints (if one judges by quality, one of those two must have been the infamous Cropper's Cabin). There was little time to rewrite, and none at all to polish. The news that Joseph Heller would, two decades later, labor for seven years to produce a turkey like Something Happened would have caused these speed-writers to boggle with amazement.
But I would argue there is little or none of the salami writing of which Gifford speaks in The Killer Inside Me. In this one book, Thompson's muse seems to have led him perfectly. Every one of Lou Ford's casual country vulgarities is balanced—and out-balanced—by some pithy and unsettling comment on the human condition. Such comments run the risk of being of little use to the story… of being, in fact, the negative image of the meaningless clichés with which the smiling Lou belabors the people he doesn't like ("It's not the heat, it's the humidity," "The man with the grin is the man who will win," etc., etc.). Instead, they have exactly the same startling empty-socketed effect as Ford's vulgarities. Again, the language has been imbued with a tone that lifts it considerably above Thompson's rather pedestrian use of words.
"Why'd they all have to come to me to get killed?" Lou Ford complains suddenly in the midst of his tale. "Why couldn't they kill themselves?" Up to this point, Ford has been narrating, rationally and completely, the story of how the vagrant he ran out of town in the book's first chapter has returned to haunt him. Into this rational account, like a human skull rolling out of the darkness and into the lamplight, comes this paranoid, put-upon, Poe-esque shriek.
When this vagrant later sees the body of Amy, whom Lou has already murdered, he goes into a fit of horror that strikes Lou not as pitiful or frightening but as extremely funny… and such is the power of his skewed vision that it strikes us funny as well.
Did you ever see one of those two-bit jazz singers? You know, trying to put something across with their bodies that they haven't got the voice to do? They lean back from the waist a little with their heads hanging forward and their hands held up about even with their ribs and swinging limp. And they sort of wobble and roll on their hips.
That's the way he looked, and he kept making that damned funny noise, his lips quivering ninety to the minute and his eyes rolling all-white.
I laughed and laughed, he looked and sounded so funny I couldn't help it.
I laughed too, God help me. Even as I was trying to imagine what Lou Ford must have looked like to a man on the edge of his own death at the hands of a maniac and knowing it, I laughed. It did look and sound funny.
In The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson sets himself one of the most difficult tasks a fiction writer can hope to perform: to create first a sense of catharsis with and then empathy (but not sympathy; never that; this is strictly a moral novel) for a lunatic. The passage above is one of the magical ways in which he achieves this end.
In a book that fairly bristles with painful ironies, we are not really surprised to discover that the motto of Central City, the Texas town where all this mayhem takes place, is "Where the hand clasp's a little stronger." It is a motto a fellow like Lou Ford can take to heart. Especially when it's his hands, around your neck.
Writing about the modern hardboiled detective story, Raymond Chandler once said, "We've taken murder out of the parlor and given it back to the people who do it best." Thompson has gone that one better in The Killer Inside Me; Lou Ford is not only the sort of man who "does it best," but the kind of man who can do nothing else. He is the bogeyman of an entire civilization, a man who kills and kills and kills, and whose motives, which seemed so persuasive and rational at the time, blow away like smoke when the killing is done, leaving him—or us, if he happens to be the sort who kills himself and leaves the mess behind with no explanation—with no sound but a cold psychotic wind blowing between his ears.
At one point Lou tells us a story that seems to have no bearing at all on his own. It is the story of a jeweler with a fine business, a beautiful wife, and two lovely children. On a business trip he meets a girl, "a real honey," and makes her his mistress. She is as perfect in her way as his wife: married, and willing to keep it that way. Then the police find the jeweler and his mistress dead in a motel room bed. A deputy goes to the jeweler's house to tell his wife, and finds her and both of the kids dead. The jeweler has shot them all, ending with himself. The point of the story is Lou Ford's judgment of the jeweler, chillingly brief and to the point: "He'd had everything, and somehow nothing was better."
Thompson, by the way, went on to write a very good novel called The Nothing Man.
Okay. Enough. It's time to get out of your way and let you experience this amazing piece of workmanship for yourself. I have explored the story in more depth than is my custom when writing introductory notes such as this, but only because the story is strong enough to do so without spoiling that experience. No amount of introductory material or postmorteming can prepare you for this work of fiction.
So it's time to let go of my hand and enter Central City, Jim Thompson's vision of hell. Time to meet Lou Ford, the nothing man with the strangled conscience and the strangely divided heart. Time to meet all of them:
Our kind. Us people. All of us that started the game with a crooked cue, that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad. All us folks.… All of us. All of us.
Amen, Jim. A-fucking-men.
I'd finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him. The midnight freight had come in a few minutes before; and he was peering in one end of the restaurant window, the end nearest the depot, shading his eyes with his hand and blinking against the light. He saw me watching him, and his face faded back into the shadows. But I knew he was still there. I knew he was waiting. The bums always size me up for an easy mark.
I lit a cigar and slid off my stool. The waitress, a new girl from Dallas, watched as I buttoned my coat. "Why, you don't even carry a gun!" she said, as though she was giving me a piece of news.
"No," I smiled. "No gun, no blackjack, nothing like that. Why should I?"
"But you're a cop—a deputy sheriff, I mean. What if some crook should try to shoot you?"
"We don't have many crooks here in Central City, ma'am," I said. "Anyway, people are people, even when they're a little misguided. You don't hurt them, they won't hurt you. They'll listen to reason."
She shook her head, wide-eyed with awe, and I strolled up to the front. The proprietor shoved back my money and laid a couple of cigars on top of it. He thanked me again for taking his son in hand.
"He's a different boy now, Lou," he said, kind of running his words together like foreigners do. "Stays in nights; gets along fine in school. And always he talks about you—what a good man is Deputy Lou Ford."
"I didn't do anything," I said. "Just talked to him. Showed him a little interest. Anyone else could have done as much."
"Only you," he said. "Because you are good, you make others so." He was all ready to sign off with that, but I wasn't. I leaned an elbow on the counter, crossed one foot behind the other and took a long slow drag on my cigar. I liked the guy—as much as I like most people, anyway—but he was too good to let go. Polite, intelligent: guys like that are my meat.
"Well, I tell you," I drawled. "I tell you the way I look at it, a man doesn't get any more out of life than what he puts into it."
"Umm," he said, fidgeting. "I guess you're right, Lou."
"I was thinking the other day, Max; and all of a sudden I had the doggonedest thought. It came to me out of a clear sky—the boy is father to the man. Just like that. The boy is father to the man."
The smile on his face was getting strained. I could hear his shoes creak as he squirmed. If there's anything worse than a bore, it's a corny bore. But how can you brush off a nice friendly fellow who'd give you his shirt if you asked for it?
"I reckon I should have been a college professor or something like that," I said. "Even when I'm asleep I'm working out problems. Take that heat wave we had a few weeks ago; a lot of people think it's the heat that makes it so hot. But it's not like that, Max. It's not the heat, but the humidity. I'll bet you didn't know that, did you?"
He cleared his throat and muttered something about being wanted in the kitchen. I pretended like I didn't hear him.
"Another thing about the weather," I said. "Everyone talks about it, but no one does anything. But maybe it's better that way. Every cloud has its silver lining, at least that's the way I figure it. I mean, if we didn't have the rain we wouldn't have the rainbows, now would we?"
"Well," I said, "I guess I'd better shove off. I've got quite a bit of getting around to do, and I don't want to rush. Haste makes waste, in my opinion. I like to look before I leap."
That was dragging 'em in by the feet, but I couldn't hold 'em back. Striking at people that way is almost as good as the other, the real way. The way I'd fought to forget—and had almost forgot—until I met her.
I was thinking about her as I stepped out into the cool West Texas night and saw the bum waiting for me.
Central City was founded in 1870, but it never became a city in size until about ten-twelve years ago. It was a shipping point for a lot of cattle and a little cotton; and Chester Conway, who was born here, made it headquarters for the Conway Construction Company. But it still wasn't much more than a wide place in a Texas road. Then, the oil boom came, and almost overnight the population jumped to 48,000.
Well, the town had been laid out in a little valley amongst a lot of hills. There just wasn't any room for the newcomers, so they spread out every whichway with their homes and businesses, and now they were scattered across a third of the county. It's not an unusual situation in the oil-boom country—you'll see a lot of cities like ours if you're ever out this way. They don't have any regular city police force, just a constable or two. The sheriff's office handles the policing for both city and county.
We do a pretty good job of it, to our own way of thinking at least. But now and then things get a little out of hand, and we put on a cleanup. It was during a cleanup three months ago that I ran into her.
"Name of Joyce Lakeland," old Bob Maples, the sheriff, told me. "Lives four-five miles out on Derrick Road, just past the old Branch farm house. Got her a nice little cottage up there behind a stand of blackjack trees."
"I think I know the place," I said. "Hustlin' lady, Bob?"
"We-el," I reckon so but she's bein' mighty decent about it. She ain't running it into the ground, and she ain't takin' on no roustabouts or sheepherders. If some of these preachers around town wasn't rompin' on me, I wouldn't bother her a-tall."
I wondered if he was getting some of it, and decided that he wasn't. He wasn't maybe any mental genius, but Bob Maples was straight. "So how shall I handle this Joyce Lakeland?" I said. "Tell her to lay off a while, or to move on?"
"We-el,"—he scratched his head, scowling—"I dunno, Lou. Just—well, just go out and size her up, and make your own decision. I know you'll be gentle, as gentle and pleasant as you can be. An' I know you can be firm if you have to. So go on out, an' see how she looks to you. I'll back you up in whatever you want to do."
It was about ten o'clock in the morning when I got there. I pulled the car up into the yard, curving it around so I could swing out easy. The county license plates didn't show, but it wasn't deliberate. It was just the way it had to be.
I eased up on the porch, knocked on the door and stood back, taking off my Stetson.
I was feeling a little uncomfortable. I hardly knew what I was going to say to her. Because maybe we're kind of old-fashioned, but our standards of conduct aren't the same, say, as they are in the east or middle-west. Out here you say yes ma'am and no ma'am to anything with skirts on; anything white, that is. Out here, if you catch a man with his pants down, you apologize… even if you have to arrest him afterwards. Out here you're a man, a man and a gentleman, or you aren't anything. And God help you if you're not.
The door opened an inch or two. Then, it opened all the way and she stood looking at me.
"Yes?" she said coldly.
She was wearing sleeping shorts and a wool pullover; her brown hair was as tousled as a lamb's tail, and her unpainted face was drawn with sleep. But none of that mattered. It wouldn't have mattered if she'd crawled out of a hog-wallow wearing a gunny sack. She had that much.
She yawned openly and said "Yes?" again, but I still couldn't speak. I guess I was staring open-mouthed like a country boy. This was three months ago, remember, and I hadn't had the sickness in almost fifteen years. Not since I was fourteen.
She wasn't much over five feet and a hundred pounds, and she looked a little scrawny around the neck and ankles. But that was all right. It was perfectly all right. The good Lord had known just where to put that flesh where it would really do some good.
"Oh, my goodness!" She laughed suddenly. "Come on in. I don't make a practice of it this early in the morning, but…" She held the screen open and gestured. I went in and she closed it and locked the door again.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," I said, "but—"
"It's all right. But I'll have to have some coffee first. You go on back."
I went down the little hall to the bedroom, listening uneasily as I heard her drawing water for the coffee. I'd acted like a chump. It was going to be hard to be firm with her after a start like this, and something told me I should be. I didn't know why; I still don't. But I knew it right from the beginning. Here was a little lady who got what she wanted, and to hell with the price tag.
Well, hell, though; it was just a feeling. She'd acted all right, and she had a nice quiet little place here. I decided I'd let her ride, for the time being anyhow. Why not? And then I happened to glance into the dresser mirror and I knew why not. I knew I couldn't. The top dresser drawer was open a little, and the mirror was tilted slightly. And hustling ladies are one thing, and hustling ladies with guns are something else.
I took it out of the drawer, a .32 automatic, just as she came in with the coffee tray. Her eyes flashed and she slammed the tray down on a table. "What," she snapped, "are you doing with that?"
I opened my coat and showed her my badge. "Sheriff's office, ma'am. What are you doing with it?"
She didn't say anything. She just took her purse off the dresser, opened it and pulled out a permit. It had been issued in Fort Worth, but it was all legal enough. Those things are usually honored from one town to another.
"Satisfied, copper?" she said.
"I reckon it's all right, miss," I said. "And my name's Ford, not copper." I gave her a big smile, but I didn't get any back. My hunch about her had been dead right. A minute before she'd been all set to lay, and it probably wouldn't have made any difference if I hadn't had a dime. Now she was set for something else, and whether I was a cop or Christ didn't make any difference either.
I wondered how she'd lived so long.
"Jesus!" she jeered. "The nicest looking guy I ever saw and you turn out to be a lousy snooping copper. How much? I don't jazz cops."
I felt my face turning red. "Lady," I said, "that's not very polite. I just came out for a little talk."
"You dumb bastard," she yelled. "I asked you what you wanted."
- "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