I worked in a basement in Baltic Street, North London, between Old Street & the Goswell Road, near the Barbican. It was an old building in a funky neighbourhood, a mix of residential & small businesses. I didn’t have to punch the clock, would say “Hi” to the people in the office & disappear underground for the day. I liked the job & I was good at it. I had my coffee maker, my boombox & I was surrounded by books.
The company imported American books not published in the UK. Don, English, & Beth, American, had, at first, brought in titles they & their friends liked. Plan B was to get hold of things that actually sold & they were getting better at doing that. We distributed a lot of “New Age” thinking, snake-oil salesmen masquerading as gurus in the Age of Aquarius. Now I’m down with Madame Blavatsky & the Theosophists but in the mid-80s the madvice was changing from “smile more & be a better human” to “smile more & make a $1,000,000”. Yuppies eh ? “Quit putting a god damn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!”. Bill Hicks & I agree on that one. Self-help ? Man, if I need a book to learn about myself & the world I reach for Dostoevsky, Philip K Dick, Bukowski, writers who I know know stuff about stuff.
My basement was the only place in town with a stack of Charles Bukowski’s poetry books. “Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit”, ideal for lunchtime reading. We had the contract for City Lights too. A copy of “Howl” in my pocket was more beatnik than that dumb beret I wore for a couple of weeks. We were in on a small company out of Berkeley California, Black Lizard books who were re-printing forgotten “hardboiled” fiction. The lurid, retro dime novel covers were an invitation & these short books, from the 1950s & 60s an introduction to David Goodis, Charles Willeford & a Great American writer, Jim Thompson.
I came to American crime fiction through Hollywood. I saw “The Big Sleep” (1946) & “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) on TV, watching with my Dad. Humphrey Bogart’s world-weary, smart-mouthed tough guy detectives, Philip Marlowe & Sam Spade were as iconic to his generation as De Niro’s Travis Bickle was to mine. The films led me to the source, to Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammett, the twin towers of the genre, tight, “tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder” (Chandler), diamond-sharp dialogue. This pair elevated the genre from the pulp magazines & set the standard by which all crime/detective writers were measured.
I didn’t know at the time that many of the most affecting films of my youth were “film noir”. These post-war productions presented a complex morality, heroes & anti-heroes familiar with life’s grey, shadowy areas. The books of the films by James M Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”), Horace McCoy (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) & Cornell Woolrich (“Rear Window”), were marine-tough, Bogart-tough. Jim Thompson is a couple of steps beyond all those guys. Inside those garish covers his bleak, nihilistic world is a stab to the solar plexus with a Louisville Slugger. Stephen King wrote “the guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn’t know the meaning of the word stop”. Once I got started I didn’t want to stop either.
Jim Thompson wrote over 30 novels, 5 in 1953 & again the following year. They were published as cheap, mass-market paperbacks & by the 1960s were mostly out-of-print. Born in 1906 in Oklahoma, his experiences of Prohibition in the 1920s & the Depression of the Thirties were high & wide & hard. His books feature drifters, grifters, convicts, con-men, stand-up broads & swell-looking dames. Everybody’s trying to get by, not everybody is doing the right thing. When trouble comes around inevitably the only way out involves more trouble.
I have no list of Thompson’s best books, his stories can be slight & it’s the characters who are memorable. These people are way past sociopathic. JT’s piquancy is to show their dark inner-world, twisted logic, desperation & downright badness. In “The Getaway” Doc McCoy is a killer, a bank robber, a man with a plan. Carl Bigelow (“Savage Night”) is a scuzzy, tubercular hitman who, like young bellhop Dusty Rhodes (“A Swell-Looking Babe”) thinks with a body part other than his brain. Then there’s Roy Dillon (“The Grifters”) the short-con operator whose relationship with his mother is wrong & shocking. These fractured felons, captured with an unflinching & wry realism, stay with you. I know what Jim Thompson would have made of those 70s New Age yuppies…mincemeat.
Hollywood has adapted a number of Thompson’s books. In Sam Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” (1972) an ageing Steve McQueen takes a good shot at Doc but Ali MacGraw was nowhere near his sharp & shrewd wife Carol. His work has appealed to non-American directors. “Serie Noire” (1979) by Alain Corneau is a striking reworking of “A Hell of a Woman” while Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters” (1990) is an entertaining neo-noir but a little too glossy. It’s difficult to lasso Thompson’s spirit & engage a large audience. Michael Winterbottom’s film “The Killer Inside Me” (2010) has a starry cast in a story about a brutal psychopath, it opened in just 17 US theatres & was buried.
Further up this page I name-dropped 3 of my literary paragons. A reviewer actually termed the phrase “dime store Dostoevsky” to describe Thompson. Like Dick he was prolific, sometimes erratic but capable of unrivalled brilliance. Thompson’s portrayal of life in or near the economic & moral gutter matches Bukowski too. His insight & honesty places him in the company of all 3. Jim Thompson was not just a top crime/thriller writer, not only the most hard-boiled of the pulp pantheon but was, in my opinion, a Great American Novelist.