Jim Thompson (writer)

Jim Thompson (writer)

James Myers Thompson (September 27, 1906, Anadarko, Oklahoma Territory - April 7, 1977, Los Angeles, California) was a United States writer of novels, short stories and screenplays, largely in the hardboiled style of crime fiction.

Thompson wrote more than thirty novels, the majority of which were original paperback publications by pulp fiction houses, from the late-1940s through mid-1950s. Despite some positive critical notice, notably by Anthony Boucher in the "New York Times," he was little-recognized in his lifetime. Only after death did Thompson's literary stature grow, when in the late 1980s, several novels were re-published in the "Black Lizard" series of re-discovered crime fiction.

Thompson's writing culminated in a few of his best-regarded works: "The Killer Inside Me", "Savage Night", "A Hell of a Woman" and "Pop. 1280." In these works, Thompson turned the derided pulp genre into literature and art, featuring unreliable narrators, odd structure, and surrealism.

The writer R.V. Cassills has suggested that of all pulp fiction, Thompson's was the rawest and most harrowing; that neither Dashiell Hammett nor Raymond Chandler nor even Horace McCoy, author of the bleak "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," ever "wrote a book within miles of Thompson".Robert Polito. "Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson". New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. p.373] Similarly, in the introduction to "Now and on Earth", Stephen King says he most admires Thompson's work because "The guy was over the top. "The guy was absolutely over the top." Big Jim didn't know the meaning of the word "stop". There are three brave lets inherent in the forgoing: he let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it."King, Stephen; "Big Jim Thompson: An Appreciation" pp vii-x in Jim Thompson's "Now And On Earth" Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, New York (1994 trade paperback edition; ISBN 0-679-74013-9. The emphasis is his.)]

Thompson admired Fyodor Dostoevsky and was nicknamed "Dimestore Dostoevsky" by writer Geoffrey O'Brien. Film director Stephen Frears, who directed an adaptation of Thompson's "The Grifters" as 1990's "The Grifters", also identified elements of Greek tragedy [From an interview in the 1998 North American DVD version of "The Grifters" film.] in his themes.

Life and career

Thompson's life was nearly as colorful as his fiction, which was semi-autobiographical, or, at least, inspired by his experiences. Thompson's father was a county sheriff in Oklahoma. He ran for the state legislature but was defeated, and he shortly thereafter left the sheriff's office under a cloud due to rumors of embezzlement. The Thompson family moved to Texas. (The theme of a once-prominent family overtaken by ill-fortune would feature in some of Thompson's works.)

Early work

Jim Thompson began writing early: a few short pieces were published in his mid-teens. He was intelligent and well-read, but had little interest in or inclination towards formal education. For about two years during prohibition in Fort Worth, Texas, Thompson worked long and often wild nights as a bellboy while attending school in the day. He worked at the Hotel Texas. One biographical profile reports that "Thompson quickly adapted to the needs of the hotel's guests, busily catering to tastes ranging from questionable morality to directly and undeniably illegal." Bootleg liquor was ubiquitous, and Thompson's brief trips to procure heroin and marijuana for hotel patrons were not uncommon. [http://www.popsubculture.com/pop/bio_project/jim_thompson.html Jim Thompson at the Biography Project] ] He was soon earning up to $300 per week, far more than his official $15 monthly wage.

He smoked and drank heavily, and at nineteen he suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1926, Thompson began working as an oil field laborer. With his father he began an independent oil drilling operation that was ultimately unsuccessful. Thompson returned to Fort Worth, intending to attend school and to write professionally.

Thompson’s autobiographical "Oil Field Vignettes" appeared in 1929 under the pen name "James Dillon." He began attending the University of Nebraska the same year as part of a program for gifted students with "untraditional educational backgrounds." By 1931, however, he had dropped out of school.

Thompson also married in 1931; the couple eloped due in part to his girlfriend Alberta’s family disapproval of Thompson. Their first child was born in 1932.

For several years Thompson occasionally wrote short stories for various true crime magazines. Generally, he would rewrite actual murder cases he had read in newspapers, but in a first person voice. In this era, he wrote other pieces for various newspapers and magazines, usually as a freelancer, but occasionally as a full-time staff writer.

In the early 1930s, Thompson was the head of the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project, one of several New Deal programs intended to aid Americans during the Great Depression. Louis L'Amour, among others, worked under Thompson's direction in this project. Thompson joined the Communist Party in 1935 but had left the group by 1938.

First novels

In the early stages of World War II, Thompson worked at an aircraft factory where he was investigated by the FBI because of his early Communist Party affiliation. These events were fodder for his semi-autobiographical debut novel, "Now And On Earth" (1942). Featuring little of the violence and crime that later permeated his writing, though it did establish his bleak, pessimistic tone, it was positively reviewed but sold poorly. His second novel, "Heed The Thunder" (1946), found Thompson steering towards crime; it details a warped and violent Nebraska family, partly modeled on his own extended clan.

When these early novels generated little critical attention, Thompson gravitated to the less-prestigious but more lucrative crime fiction genre with "Nothing More Than Murder." He afterwards moved to Lion Books, a small paperback publisher. Lion's Arnold Hanno was his ideal editor, offering the writer essentially free rein about content, yet expecting him to be productive and reliable. Lion published most of Thompson’s best-regarded works.

Fifties maturity

The early to mid fifties saw Thompson reaching his stride as a mature writer. In 1952, "The Killer Inside Me" was published. It is arguably Thompson's finest and best-known novel. The narrator, Lou Ford, is a small-town sheriff who appears amiable and pleasant and slightly dull-minded. Yet, in reality, Sheriff Ford is very intelligent and always is fighting a nearly-constant urge to act violently; Ford describes his urge as "the sickness" (always italicised). Lion Books unsuccessfully attempted to have "The Killer Inside Me" nominated for a National Book Award; it was eponymously adapted to the cinema, in 1976, by director Burt Kennedy, with Stacy Keach as Sheriff Lou Ford.

"Savage Night," published in 1953, is generally is ranked as one of his best novels. It is also one of his oddest literary offerings. Its narrator, Charlie "Little" Bigger (also known as Carl Bigelow), is a small, tubercular hitman whose mind is deteriorating with his body. In reviewing "Savage Night", Boucher said it was "written with vigor and bite, but sheering off from realism into a peculiar surrealist ending of sheer Guignol horror. Odd that a mass-consumption paperback should contain the most experimental writing I've seen in a suspense novel of late." "Savage Night" contains an interlude — whether or not it is fantasy or dream, hallucination or flashback is unclear — when Bigger meets a poor, verbose writer who, much like Thompson himself, has a penchant for booze and makes a living writing pulp fiction to be sold alongside pornography. That writer also claims to operate a "farm" where he grows the more interesting parts of a woman's body as a metaphor for the material he writes.

In 1955, Thompson moved to Hollywood, California, where Stanley Kubrick commissioned from him the screenplay adaptation of Lionel White's novel "Clean Break" to be filmed as "The Killing", Kubrick's first studio-financed movie. Although Thompson wrote most of the script, Kubrick credited himself as screenplay writer, cheating Thompson with only a vague "additional dialogue" writer credit. Nevertheless, they collaborated again in "Paths of Glory" (mostly written by Thompson, again with little public credit); and again in the criminal story titled "Lunatic at Large", a production that never materialized despite Thompson's having completed and submitted the commissioned screen treatment. Though pleased with the work, Kubrick was side-tracked by "Spartacus"; when Kubrick returned to "Lunatic at Large", the sole copy of Thompson's manuscript had been lost. Kubrick was quoted by family and friends as regretting the lost opportunity. Yet, in 1999, after Kubrick's death, son-in-law Phillip Hobbs found the manuscript among the dead director's documents; as of 2006, said project is in the pre-production stage, fifty years after Thompson wrote it.

Later life and death

After his film work, Thompson remained in California for the rest of his life, drifting away from writing his increasingly unpopular novels and eventually moving to television programs and novelizations: he would take any writing job to pay the bills.

In the 1970s, Thompson wrote his two final books, "King Blood" and "White Mother, Black Son", neither of which was published during his life. Even his longtime supporters in the publishing industry thought the books were poorly written. In 1970, Thompson was flown to Robert Redford's Utah residence. Redford hired him to write a motion picture script about the life of a hobo during the Great Depression. Thompson was paid $10,000 for his script "Bo", though it was never produced.

Motion picture writer/director Sam Fuller expressed an interest in adapting "The Getaway" for the screen, and Polito notes that Fuller so admired the novel that he quipped, half-seriously, that he could use the novel itself as a shooting script. Eventually, Sam Peckinpah was slated to direct "The Getaway."

In many regards, "The Getaway" was a frustrating repeat of his earlier experience with Kubrick. Thompson wrote a script, but McQueen rejected it as too reliant on dialogue, with not enough action. Though Walter Hill was given the sole script credit, Thompson insisted that much of his script ended up in the film. Thompson sought Writers Guild arbitration but the Guild ultimately ruled against him. In the end, the film was heavily bowdlerized from Thompson's original vision and as King writes, "if you have seen only the film version of "The Getaway", you have no idea of the existential horrors awaiting Doc and Carol McCoy at the point where Sam Peckinpah ended the story."

Thompson actually appeared in the 1975 movie "Farewell, My Lovely", starring Robert Mitchum. He played the character Judge Baxter Wilson Grayle.Robert Polito (1995) p.495] When Thompson's fortunes were fading, he made the acquaintance of writer Harlan Ellison who had long admired Thompson's books. Though Thompson still drank heavily (preferring to meet at the famed writer's haunt Musso & Frank's) and Ellison was a teetotaler (preferring fast food restaurants), they often met for meals and conversation.

Though Thompson's books were falling out of print in the United States, the French had discovered his works. Though they were not runaway bestsellers in France, his books did sell well enough in that country to keep a trickle of royalties flowing towards Thompson. Incidentally, Polito also debunks the myth that Thompson was not paid well for his works: Thompson's pay, he notes, was roughly in line with what writers of similar works received during that era. Rather, Thompson's drinking and general instability is what left him destitute.

Thompson died after a series of strokes at age 71, aggravated by his long-term alcoholism. He refused to eat for some time prior to his death, and this self-inflicted starvation contributed greatly to his demise. At the time of his death none of his novels were in print in his home country.


Thompson's stories are about grifters, losers, sociopaths and psychopaths - some at the fringe of society, some at its heart - their nihilistic world-view being best-served by first-person narratives revealing a frighteningly deep understanding of the warped mind. There are no good guys in Thompson's literature - most everyone is abusive, opportunistic, or simply biding time until able to be so.

Despite some positive critical notice, Thompson's novels were essentially lost in the crowd among dozens of peer writers who also were churning out crime novels; only after his best years as a writer did Thompson achieve a measure of fame. Yet that neglect might stem from his novels' style: the crime novels are fast-moving and compelling but sometimes sloppy and uneven. Thompson wrote quickly with little revision or editing (many novels were written in a month); using his newspaper experience he produced concise, evocative prose.

Yet at his best his novels were among the most effectively and memorably written genre pieces. He also managed unusual and highly successful literary tricks: for example, halfway though "A Hell Of A Woman", the first-person narrator Frank "Dolly" Dillon has a mental breakdown; the sides of his personality then take turns narrating the story's chapters, alternately violently psychotic (telling the sordid tale that actually happened) or sweet-natured and patient (telling the idealized fantasy that did not happen). In the final page of the original manuscript the two sides of Dillon's broken personality appear together as two separate columns of text. The publisher disliked that, and instead alternated the two narrations in one, long paragraph, alternating standard Roman type and italicised type. Thompson disliked the change, thinking it confusing and difficult for the reader.

For most of his life Jim Thompson drank heavily; the effects of alcoholism often featured in his works, most prominently in "The Alcoholics" (1953) which is set in a detoxification clinic. Donald E. Westlake, who adapted "The Grifters" for the screen, observed that alcoholism had a great role in Thompson's literature though it tended to be inexplicit. Westlake described typical personal relationships in Thompson novels as pleasant in the morning, argumentative in the afternoon, and abusive at night - behavior common to the alcoholic Thompson's style of life but which he elided from the stories. [From an interview in the 1998 North American DVD version of "The Grifters" film.]

Film adaptations

Two of Thompson's books ("The Getaway" and "The Killer Inside Me") were adapted as Hollywood motion pictures during his lifetime. However, Polito argues, that neither adaptation was ultimately true to Thompson's spirit.

French director Bertrand Tavernier adapted "Pop. 1280" for his 1981 film, "Coup de Torchon", changing the setting from the American South to a French colony in West Africa of the 1930s. Aside from shift in setting, Polito argues that "Coup de Torchon" was remarkably faithful to the plot and the spirit of the novel, and remains arguably the most authentic adaptation of any of Thompson's work.

"A Hell of a Woman" was also adapted in French as "Série noire" (1979).

In the early 1990s, Hollywood resumed its interest in Thompson's writing and several of his novels were re-published. Three novels were adapted for new film treatments during that period: "The Kill-Off"; "After Dark, My Sweet"; and "The Grifters", which garnered four Academy Award nominations.

"The Getaway" was remade in 1994 with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in the lead roles but the film retained the happy ending of the earlier film.

In 1996, "A Swell-Looking Babe" was released as "Hit Me," and 1997 saw the release of "This World, Then the Fireworks" from Thompson's short story of that name.

Cultural references

*Thompson was a major influence on the songwriting style of Mark Sandman, the singer for Morphine (band) and Treat Her Right; see Sandman songs like "Murder for the Money" and "A Good Woman is Hard to Find".
*There is a reference to Thompson's book "The Killer Inside Me" in the song, "Sri Lanka Sex Hotel", on the Dead Milkmen's Beelzebubba album.
*David Thomas, lead singer of Pere Ubu, says of the band's album Why I Hate Women: "the back story for this album was the Jim Thompson novel he never wrote." [cite web |title= Why I hate women |publisher= Ubu Projex |url= http://www.ubuprojex.net/wihw.html |accessdate= 2008-05-12]
*Donald Westlake, who adapted "The Grifters" for film in 1990, satirized Thompson later that year in his own novel "Drowned Hopes". This book features a character named "Tom Jimson" who is hard-boiled to the point of absurdity.

Major works

* "Now and On Earth" (1942)
* "Heed the Thunder" (aka "Sins of the Fathers") (1946)
* "Nothing More Than Murder" (1949)
* "The Killer Inside Me" (1952)
* "Cropper's Cabin" (1952)
* "Recoil" (1953)
* "The Alcoholics" (1953)
* "Savage Night" (1953)
* "Bad Boy" (1953)
* "The Criminal" (1953)
* "The Golden Gizmo" (aka "The Golden Sinner") (1954)
* "Roughneck" (1954)
* "A Swell-Looking Babe" (1954)
* "A Hell of a Woman" (1954)
* "The Nothing Man" (1954)
* "After Dark, My Sweet" (1955)
* "The Kill-Off" (1957)
* "Wild Town" (1957)
* "The Getaway" (1959)
* "The Transgressors" (1961)
* "The Grifters" (1963)
* "Pop. 1280" (1964)
* "Texas By the Tail" (1965)
* "South of Heaven" (1967)
* "Child of Rage" (1972)
* "King Blood" (1973)
* "" (1988)
* "The Rip-Off" (1989)


External links

* [http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Lofts/6437/jim.htm "The Killer Beside Me"]
* [http://www.crimetime.co.uk/features/jimthompson.php "Cigarettes and Alcohol: The Extraordinary Life of Jim Thompson"]
* [http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/jthompso.htm Jim Thompson at Pegasos]

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