The Best Writer You've Never Heard of: Jim Thompson

The Best Writer You’ve Never Heard of: Jim Thompson

In 1977, Jim Thompson was an obscure crime writer with a few screenplays to his credit. As he lay dying, he predicted that some of his work would be considered classics in ten years. At the time, that seemed hopelessly optimistic. None of his work was in print. He was dying in poverty. His prediction was clearly wrong.

And it was. Twenty years after his death, people figured out that Jim Thompson was a hell of a writer. So, it took twenty years, not ten. Otherwise, Thompson pretty much got it right.

When Thompson started writing, America liked the Martini noir of Dashiell Hammett and Earl Stanley Gardner. Compared to those writers, Thompson’s work was like a whiskey shot followed by a punch to the face.

Writing most of his work in the 1950s and 1960s, he pushed boundaries and made folks feel uncomfortable. After World War II, all America wanted was a little peace and quiet. So, Thompson was largely ignored.

The Best Writer You've Never Heard of: Jim Thompson

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At first, Thompson’s lack of success didn’t stop him. Between 1952 and 1957, he wrote 16 novels. Sometimes he wrote entire novels in 48 hours. He was paid by the line, and the money didn’t amount to very much. So, he churned out novels in order to pay the bills.

Finally though, the sheer apathy of the American public got to him. Some people think that writers give up when everyone hates their work. That’s not generally true. Writers give up when they’re ignored. What’s the point of writing when no one reads your words?

So, Thompson basically gave up writing novels. He went out to California and wrote screenplays for Hollywood. Thompson did pretty well for a while. Some of the bigwigs out there even hired Thompson to adapt one of his novels into a screenplay. Of course, after he turned in a draft, they fired him and went with a different writer. That’s Hollywood for you.

Video: YouTube/Lia Serbyn, Jim Thompson cameo as Judge Grayle in “Farewell, My Lovely”

California was a long way away from where Thompson was originally raised. He was born in Oklahoma, in an apartment located on top of a jail. Pretty fitting for a crime writer.

Thompson’s father was a police officer but got in trouble for losing track of police funds.  At least that’s one version of the story. Thompson tended to spin tales about his upbringing.

Eventually, Jim’s father was able to rejoin his family, and there was peace for a while. Jim’s youth was spent traveling from place to place. He lived in Texas for a while but didn’t like it much.

Unfortunately, Jim’s parents weren’t prosperous, so he found himself doing all sorts of odd jobs while going to high school and college. While most were legal, he may also have worked angles on the side. The job introduced him to some higher-ups in the criminal underworld, although Jim was strictly small-time himself.

After he graduated college, Jim decided to get a new start on things. So he went back down to Texas, West Texas to be precise.

Thompson writes a lot about Texas in his autobiographical novel “Bad Boy.” At first, he didn’t really like it all that much. But Texas grew on him. Thompson said that a West Texas man would “give you a mile, but wouldn’t give in to you an inch.” That sounds about right.

The Best Writer You've Never Heard of: Jim Thompson

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Despite his past, Thompson mostly stayed on the straight-and-narrow in Texas. However, he did get into a bar fight and subsequently was fined 18 dollars. He was given three days to pay it.

Thompson figured he would ignore the fine. He worked a day or so out of town and thought that no one would drive out to collect the money.

He was wrong. A deputy sheriff drove out. Just him and Thompson out in the middle of nowhere. Thompson gave the policeman some attitude at first, deliberately showering him with splinters from his work and throwing a piece of wood.

The lawman remained calm but finally pointed out that they were alone. Everybody knew the police officer, and no one knew Jim Thompson, who was a skinny kid in his 20s. The policeman then said to Jim that he shouldn’t push people. Because at the end of the day, you just don’t know what people are capable of.

Thompson paid the fine as quickly as possible.

The Best Writer You've Never Heard of: Jim Thompson

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Later on, that encounter inspired Thompson to write “The Killer Inside Me,” a classic novel about a sociopathic police officer in Texas.

In the novel, Deputy Lou Ford is handsome, charming, and affable. But something’s twisted up inside him. He understands human nature and loathes it. On the outside, he seems fine. But on the inside, he’s not happy with his place in the world. Lou Ford resents almost everything, and he’s about to snap.

Stephen King wrote that “The Killer Inside Me” should share space with “The Sun Also Rises” and “Huckleberry Finn.”  It’s THAT kind of classic.

Stanley Kubrick said that the novel is “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.” Thompson collaborated with Kubrick on two films, “The Killing” and “Paths of Glory.” Both of them are great, although a little dated by modern standards.

But “The Killer Inside Me” isn’t dated. The writing still startles you as much today as it did 50 years ago. If you haven’t read the book yet, you should. It’s a haunted roller coaster with no exit, and you almost certainly will enjoy the ride.

So, check out a copy from the library (or buy it from your neighborhood bookstore), sit down at your local diner or pizzeria, and read about Deputy Lou Ford. After you’re done eating, you might not look at folks the same way again. But it’s all right to be unsettled.

You’ve just read a Jim Thompson novel, and that’s what he does.

Written by Paul Ehrlich