American crime writer Jim Thompson wrote 24 crime novels in just over 20 years, beginning in the early 1950s. He had been writing since he was a teenager, sometimes getting paid as a newspaper and true crime journalist, and also as director of the Oklahoma branch of the WPA funded Federal Writers Project. [Would that such public works were still in existence now.] In 1953, Thompson was 46 years old and, finally given the chance to publish steadily, wrote like a starving man at a banquet table. Remarkably, nearly half of his novels were written in a two year stretch.
Thompson’s formidable legacy rests on the books he wrote in the 1950s, but when he died nothing was in print in the U.S. and hadn’t been for years. Shortly before his death, in a burst of prescience, he told his wife to be sure to maintain copyrights on his books stating, “I’ll be famous ten years after I’m dead.” As the old saw maintains, truer words were never spoken.
In a typical Jim Thompson story, killers think longer and deeper about what they will have, or did have, for breakfast than they do about the dead bodies at their feet. They are not the type to wake up screaming because victims have been chasing them in their dreams. In other words, they are psychopaths.
Two of Thompson’s most compelling killers are lawmen. Not cops, lawmen. Cops work in the city, lawmen work in the country. Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me and Nick Corey in Pop. 1280 are small town lawmen. Corey is sheriff in Pottsville, a town of 1,280 inhabitants. Read the book and you’ll find an interesting theory as to why there are not 1,280 souls in Pottsville. When Sheriff Corey visits a nearby town of four or five thousand people he says to himself, “I mean it was just like being in New York or one of them other big cities.”
In little places like Pottsville, law enforcement is frequently a refuge for guys who played tackle football in high school and who are otherwise unemployable when they come of age. For pathological sheriffs like Lou Ford and Nick Corey, being a lawman is an ideal position from which to wreak murderous havoc. You could say it’s not unlike the priesthood for pedophiles.
The Killer Inside Me is perhaps better known than Pop. 1280 because it has famous fans like Stanley Kubrick and Sean Penn. But I prefer Pop. 1280. Nick Corey is damned funny. Like Lou Ford, Corey communicates with the public in tired clichés but unlike Ford, his talk is consistently self-deprecating. Ford is much more serious. He whiles away downtime working out calculus problems. Both stories are driven by interior dialogue and in Corey’s case his humble façade is hilarious when he’s talking to himself:
So I says to myself, “Nick,” I says, “Nick Corey, these problems of yours are driving you plumb out of your mind, so you better think of something fast. You better come to a decision, Nick Corey, or you’re gonna wish you had.”
So I thought and I thought, and then I thought some more. And finally I came to a decision.
I decided I didn’t know what the heck to do.
When writing about lawmen, Thompson was working from a very personal history. He was first introduced to small town and rural law enforcement in his own home. His father was a marshal in Oklahoma Indian Territory and Thompson was born in an apartment above the Caddo County Jail in 1906, one year before Oklahoma became a state. His father was a formidable presence. In Savage Art, Thompson’s biographer Robert Polito writes that his subject’s stories “roil with Oedipal anger.” But one brief encounter Thompson had with the law in West Texas was equally influential, potentially life-ending, and ultimately bred Lou Ford and Nick Corey.
Before Thompson was able to make a living writing novels, he spent 20-odd years working mostly marginal jobs in Oklahoma and Texas. He was a bellhop in a Fort Worth hotel, where he made many times his nominal pay providing guests with more than extra towels. He also put in time in the oil fields of West Texas. It was in those oil fields where he was one day contacted by a deputy who, to hear Thompson tell it, showed him something it took him years to decipher.
West Texas is hot in the summertime, blast furnace hot because the wind never stops blowing. Thompson had a job one summer outside Big Spring, Texas dismantling wooden oil rigs for salvage. One night in town, he got into what he called a donnybrook and then left town after promising to pay a fine for disturbing the peace within four days. He had no intention of returning. A few days later he was working atop an oil rig under a scorching sun 40 miles from Big Spring when a deputy came calling. Here’s the story as told in Thompson’s stylized autobiography, Bad Boy:
I stared down at him. Finally, I found my voice. “Have a nice ride?”
“Tol’able. Left town last night.”
“Well, here I am,” I said. “Come on and get me.”
“Ain’t in no hurry. Just as soon rest a spell.”
“Why don’t you shoot me?” I said. “I’m a pretty desperate criminal.”
“Ain’t got no gun.” He grinned up at me lazily. “Never seen much sense in shooting. And that’s a fact.”
He stretched out on the derrick floor and put his hands under his head. He closed his eyes.
Thompson tried to wait the deputy out but the heat and the wind were getting to him. Around noon the deputy asked if Thompson would like to have a little food and water, offering to bring a pail he could pull up with a rope. Thompson laughed, gave up, and came down:
“Now that wasn’t very smart,” he said. “And that’s—“
“And that’s a fact,” I snapped. “All right, let’s get going.” He went on grinning at me. In fact, his grin broadened a little. But it was fixed, humorless, and a veil seemed to drop over his eyes.
“What makes you so sure,” he said softly, “you’re going anywhere? …Awful lonesome out here, ain’t it? Ain’t another soul for miles around but you and me… Lived here all my life. Everyone knows me. No one knows you. And we’re all alone. What do you make o’ that, a smart fella like you? You’ve been around. You’re all full of piss and high spirits. What do you think an ol’ stupid country boy might do in a case like this?”
He stared at me, steadily, the grin baring his teeth. I stood paralyzed and wordless, a great cold lump forming in my stomach. The wind whined and moaned through the derrick. He spoke again, as though in answer to a point I had raised.
“Don’t need one,” he said. “Ain’t nothing you can do with a gun that you can’t do a better way. Don’t see nothin’ around here I’d need a gun for.”
He shifted his feet slightly. The muscles in his shoulders bunched. He took a pair of black kid gloves from his pocket, and drew them on slowly. He smacked his fist into the palm of his other hand.
“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “Tell you a couple of things. There ain’t no way of telling what a man is by looking at him. There ain’t no way of knowing what he’ll do if he has the chance. You think maybe you can remember that?”
It turned out that Jim Thompson got lucky that day. The deputy didn’t beat him to death; in fact he didn’t lay a hand on him. Instead he drove him back to Big Spring and Thomson paid a fine:
“…and you can be sure that I made no fuss about it.”
Thompson says he remembered that day for the rest of his life; he simply could not get that deputy out of his mind.
Presented as autobiography, Bad Boy can read more like fiction than Thompson’s novels. But this story rings true because it is not Thompson self-promoting and self-aggrandizing as in the rest of the book. In this episode, Thompson’s eyes are on the deputy and they are big as saucers.
Regardless of its veracity, the story is an important illustration of what Thompson repeatedly said was the only real storytelling device — Things are not what they seem. And the deputy from Big Spring is not the only one who taught Thompson this. It’s important to remember that, like Lou Ford, Thompson was an autodidact who spent at least as much time reading as he did drinking, and he drank a lot. In Savage Art, Polito provides this account of another major influence that Thompson met in West Texas:
Thompson later told his Oklahoma City friend Gordon Friesen that reading Marx in the oil fields was “the turning point in his life,” his “first real education,” and that “Marx had given him the words to understand his life.”
Another friend, French cineaste Pierre Rissient, notes that as late as the 1960s Thompson still correlated his fiction to his early study of Marx:
When one would ask him what were the things that, in his opinion, he broached in his novels, he would say that all writers have but one theme, in all literature there is but one theme which is, moreover, the theme of Don Quixote, and which is that things are not what they seem. He would always come back to this phrase…
Marx, Cervantes and a lawman from Big Spring serve as triple bookends in the education of Jim Thompson, American crime writer.
posted by DD Claxton on March 16, 2013
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