I LEFT-HOOKED HER, I right-crossed her. I gave her just the two haymakers, left and right. Fast. Batting her one way, then the other. Batting her back before she could fall. And then I let her go down, back against the foot of the stairs; and her neck looked about four inches longer. And her head was swinging on it like a pumpkin on a vine.
"Kill her? What the hell do you think it did?"
That voice belongs to a man named Dolly Dillon, the narrator of a novel called A Hell of a Woman. The author of the novel is a man named Jim Thompson, and the voice is very much his own.
Thompson (1906-1977) sold his first short story to True Detective magazine at the age of 14. He also contributed to Saga, wrote for several newspapers, and worked some of the knockabout jobs that writers used to boast about doing. He also wrote some films, The Killing and Paths of Glory for Stanley Kubrick. Between 1942 and 1973, he wrote 29 novels, most of them published as paperback originals by houses that were then undistinguished and are now long-defunct. Now they are being reissued, and their appearance constitutes an important literary event. As the four novels in hand demonstrate, Jim Thompson possessed a genuinely distinctive and absolutely authentic American voice.
They are presented as murder-suspense novels -- the Black Lizard titles are beautifully produced, with pulp-style artwork and brightly coated covers -- and they will certainly land on the mystery shelves of the bookstore. They are, in fact, hard-boiled tales of murder, packed with violence. But they are written with such casual panache, with such a powerfully effective world-view, and in such a compelling and convincing voice, that they deserve to win an audience far beyond the genre market. If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Cornell Woolrich could have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it.
"So you come to this town," Dolly Dillon says in A Hell of a Woman, "and you see this ad. Man for outside sales and collections. Good deal for hard worker. And you think maybe this is it. This sounds like a right job; this looks like a right town. And, of course. neither one of 'em is right, they're just like all the others. The job stinks. The town stinks. You stink." That is the world of Thompson's people, a world in which "the good seems always to be in the past." And it's a familiar world: "Nothing ever happened, naturally, to a two-dollar suitcase with a few bucks' worth of clothes in it. But let the bag contain something hot -- money or jewelry or narcotics, or part of a dismembered corpse -- and sure as shootin' there was a foul-up." And women? Dolly Dillon tells us a lesson he learned in his youth: "The prettier and the sweeter they act toward you, the less you can trust 'em. They're just leading you on, see, to get you in trouble. And maybe you don't see it right at the time, but, brother, you will."
HIS CHARACTERS understand their world only too well and cry out against it. Here's Lou Ford of The Killer Inside Me: "I guess I kind of got a foot on both fences. . . . I planted 'em there early and now they've taken root, and I can't move either way and I can't jump. All I can do is wait until I split." Here's Dolly Dillon: "There's just some guys that get the breaks, and some that don't. And me, I guess you know the kind I am." And here's Nick Corey of Pop. 1280: "Just how much free will does any of us exercise? We got controls all along the line, our physical make-up, our mental make-up, our backgrounds; they're all shapin' us a certain way, fixin' us up for a certain role in life, and . . . we better play that role or fill that hole. . . or all hell is going to tumble out of the heavens and fall right down on top of us. We better do what we were made to do, or we'll find it being done to us."
Accordingly Thompson's people respond to their world with violence. Dolly Dillon, trapped in that stinking job in that stinking town, and saddled with a wife who is "a lazy, selfish dirty slob," meets Mona. She needs his help, she has access to money, big money, and Dolly sees a glimmer of hope. "She was out of this world, that little girl. . . . You could really go places with a kid like that. You'd do anything in the world for her because you knew she'd do anything in the world for you, and you could just naturally go to town." Briefly, Dolly forgets the bitter lesson he learned years before, until, inevitably, the glimmer of hope turns to a flash of horrific violence.
The most effective of these four novels are those in which the killers tell their own stories. The Getaway, told in the third person, lacks the unity and stylistic strength of the others, because Thompson's skill was in placing himself inside a cleverly conceived and fully realized character, and then speaking in his voice. Lou Ford of The Killer Inside Me presents himself to the world as a "dull good-natured guy who couldn't do anything bad if he tried." He is a cold-blooded murderer. Nick Corey of Pop. 1280 is "high sheriff of Potts County," a drawling talker who casually narrates his tales of bloody killings. Yet he is a sufferer too, like the other narrators, and ends his tale with a cry of anguish.
These reissues could well place Jim Thompson on that narrow pedestal occupied by Chandler, Hammett, and Woolrich. He deserves to be there. His work is firmly in the tradition of the roman noir, but precisely because it is so very dark, it casts a dazzling light on the human condition.