Bookends: Now and on Earth (1942)/King Blood (1973)
Books published 1920-59: 20
The Case for the Crown
Diversity: If you’re going to consider the hardboiled subgenre as part of the history of crime fiction – and you really, really should – the accepted wisdom says you go Chandler or Hammett or, at a push, James M. Cain. I say that Jim Thompson did more than those erstwhile gentlemen combined and should be enthroned ahead of all three of them. Chandler famously said of Hammett that he “gave crime back to the people who committed it for a reason”, but I feel this is more true of Thompson than of Sam: Hammett’s and Chandler’s way in was always their detective characters, who stumbled into something already in motion and acted in the way a detective is expected to. Thompson, by contrast, gave us the petty losers, the cuckolded husbands, the big-dreaming small-town folk, the small-time grifters and any other number of subsections of society who had their own reasons for committing their crimes (sex was always a part of Thompson’s protagonists’ motivation) and made us feel their motives because – forget some fabulous inheritance, or a trust left to my wife who died so I married someone else and we’re pretending she’s the original, or the man who married my one true love and then made her miserable so she killed herself leaving me to avenge her – they were motives the ordinary man could understand, even experience themself.Taking the crime out of the hands of the Genius Amateur or the Moral Detective, he gave us these people we could understand – and more often than not despise – and worked them into a frenzy of convoluted schemes made all the more complicated by their inability to see things through without some hitch (the undoing of every villain ever in classic crime). These people committed crimes for reasons anyone could relate to, and rather than bring you in after the fact and seek to piece it together retrospectively, Thompson grabbed you by the neck and dragged you along for the ride. He made you watch it fall apart, and held you thunderstruck and appalled while everything crumbled.
Outside of his novels, Thompson wrote innumerable (many of them lost, to my understanding) short stories for American pulp magazines, and several screenplays (of which only two – Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Paths to Glory (1957) – were ever produced). Additionally, he wrote a novelisation of the Raymond Burr series Ironside, and published several poems and a handful of non-fiction articles in those same pulps that published his first, shorter fiction. For me, though, his diversity is the detail and care he brought to a variety of different plots (there are Thompson touchstones, no doubt, but never anything so crude as a formula) without once straying into the miserablist philosophy of the avant-garde: nothing else out there is quite like Jim Thompson.
Growth: In the same way that Agatha Christie isn’t dismissed as a Queen of Crime for daring to publish outside of the accepted bounds of the Golden Age, so Jim Thompson – who I’m imagining will be a surprise choice to many of you – shouldn’t be discounted just because he doesn’t immediately appear to fit the bill. For me his masterpiece is the out-of-era Pop. 1280 (1964) in which the “Aww, jeez, shucks, he sure seemed like a nice kinda fella” narration of Nick Corey is slowly stripped away over the first few chapters to reveal something decidedly more clear-eyed and psychotic beneath. Equally, A Hell of a Woman (1954) is probably the most striking piece of narration I’ve ever read: as his protagonist’s psyche begins to fracture apart under the strain of the plot, the different chapters are narrated by his ‘public face’ and his less acceptable ‘inner self’. Time and again, Thompson found a new wrinkle on the “man in a small town” theme and expanded it in new and interesting ways. He was no artist – the average length of time he spent on a book is apparently around three months – but these were no mere unreliable narrators; without info-dumping it upon you, and without a side-character psychiatrist showing up to explain everything in words of one syllable, Thompson showed how it was possible to convey madness and frustration beautifully. And charm, too, because by god aren’t these cracked, crazy, untrustworthy killers, blackmailers and cons charming.
Additionally, he found an art in an otherwise-cheap form of expression that was beyond many of his contemporaries. The final chapter of The Getaway (1959) contains more satire than can be found in the entire output of Ngaio Marsh or Christianna Brand, and he carried a firm tradition of tight construction through virtually everything he wrote, showing how to expand upon the perceived limitations of the pulps. And the prose. Oh, the prose! Picking up a Thompson novel and flicking more or less at random to any page I can stumble across something really rather beautiful. Examples abound, but honestly just read, say, The Getaway and you’ll get breathless moments of hard-hearted glory like:
Flight is many things. Something clean and swift, like a bird skimming across the sky. Or something filthy and crawling; a series of crab-like movements through figurative and literal slime, a process of creeping ahead, jumping sideways, running backward. It is sleeping in fields and river bottoms. It is bellying for miles along an irrigation ditch. It is back roads, spur railroad lines, the tailgate of a wildcat truck, a stolen car and a dead couple in lovers’ lane. It is food pilfered from freight cars, garments taken from clotheslines; robbery and murder, sweat and blood. The complex made simple by the alchemy of necessity.
Clinton sighed, and gave up. All his life he had given up. He didn’t know why it was like that; why a man who wanted nothing but to live honestly and industriously and usefully – who, briefly, asked only the privileges of giving and helping – had had to compromise and surrender at every turn. But that was the way it had been, and that apparently was the way it was to be.