Monday, July 26, 2004

Book Review: The Killer Inside Me--by Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson was an American novel writer in the crime noir tradition that was most popular in the 1950's. If you’re unfamiliar with the style, they are usually bleak, sparsely written tales populated with losers, botched plans, cheap women and double-crossers. There is always plenty of deviancy and never a happy ending. The most successful and literary of the writers famous for crime noir were probably Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Jim Thompson didn't receive much acclaim while he was alive though recent re-issues of his books as well as a number of screen-plays based on his novels that were turned into moderately successful movies (such as the The Grifters) have added new cachet to his name.

Like many who wrote in the style, his work cannot be classed as exceptionally well written and with an oeuvre that includes almost 30 novels, some fall under the heading of potboiler. Within that body of work there are certain novels that definitely stand out as more worthy than others do. One of his better one's is The Killer Inside Me.

The story of a smalltown sherrif's deputy who also happens to be a functioning psychopath, this novel follows a pattern similar to many of Thompson's other books (indeed many by other authors within the genre). Told in the first person, the main character has a troubled past that is dribbled out to the reader throughout the tale, as his mask inevitably starts to fall and things go horribly wrong.

Unlike some authors who labour over what would appear to be preposterous plot twists in an effort to make them seem plausible, Thompson deftly inserts them in the narrative and the reader finds him or herself going along without questioning something that might seem absurd from another writer.

The narrator and protagonist, Lou Ford, reveals soon after the novel opens that his brother took the rap for him as a teenager after he raped a young child. As his father was a physician in the small town in Texas where they lived, he promptly castrated his son in hopes he could lead a somewhat normal life(?). Now alone in the house he grew up in with his twisted thoughts and the still fully stocked pharmacy cabinet he uses to jack himself full of hormones so that he can perform sexually when necessary, he puts forth a public face that keeps most people fooled including his long-time girlfriend.

A cheap whore arrives and sets up shop on the outskirts of town and Ford becomes involved with her, triggering his unraveling and setting the entertaining course of the novel into action. A number of seedy and less than scrupulous characters occupy various positions in town and inevitably have some links to Ford’s past and may or may not know the details of his earlier life. They become entwined in the plot and Ford finds it more and more logical in his own warped mind to start topping people.

Thompson offers up a creepy character in Ford whose bizarre musings seem like what a true psychopath must be like (or at least a plausible pulp fiction rendition that convinces the reader that it is authentic). Not a raving lunatic but someone who is affronted by odd things and whose strange rationalizations become almost believable. His skewed sense of compassion almost creates a sense of sympathy for his character but his placid outward appearance that is disrupted by his casuallly violent eruptions ultimately eliminates that possibility. Thompson's dark and truly twisted sense of humour adds to the entertaining mix and made me laugh at inappropriate times…perhaps an attempt to creep out the reader and make them feel an unhealthy affinity with the wacko Ford.

Here's a sample of the ongoing rap Ford carries on with himself throughout:

"You've done something pretty bad or you want something bad, and you think, well, if I can just do such and such I can fix it. If I can count down from a thousand backwards by three and a third or recite the Gettysburg address in pig-latin while I'm touching my little toes with my big ones, everything will be all right."

As things break down the violence is ratcheted up and there are some twists that result in a not totally unexpected finish. Watching Ford's deviant insanity ride its course is the real entertainment however and there are plenty of memorable passages where the weirdness plays out as written in Thompson's unique style.

A simple writing style throughout, Thompson demonstrates that good storytellers don't need elaborate plots and detailed descriptions to keep the reader interested. An ability to move the story along, interesting dialogue and the intrigue of watching as Ford starts to lose it makes this a novel worth reading.

Here is a link to a good short biography on Jim Thompson.