If you like your Noir mean – seriously mean – then Jim Thompson is the writer for you. He’s the kind of the Noir author who writes stories that can’t be turned into easy parodies, like Hamett, Chandler, or Spillane. There’s nothing funny at all about Thompson’s story – or if there is, it’s a kind of dark humor that makes you shudder as you read it. Thompson took the Noir formula and removed the mystery. His books usually aren’t about detectives, but about criminals or those very close to breaking the law. They don’t have to solve any mystery, beyond trying to get out with the loot alive, completely unburdened by morals. Not that this saves them, of course. All the writers I mentioned here are great with prose, but Thompson reaches another level – going from chiseled hardboiled metaphors to almost feverish streams of heartless words. I really need to read more Thompson.
Thompson himself led a Noirish life. As a kid, he worked as a bellboy in a sleazy hotel in Prohibition Era Texas and would often procure illegal materials for the guests. He worked in the Oklahoma Federal Writers Program as part of the New Deal, and started to get heavily into crime novels in the Fifties. He wrote classics like The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, The Getaway, and Pop. 1280. He even collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on classics like The Killing and Paths of Glory. Another nifty tidbit of useless trivia is that he appeared in a cameo in the film of Farewell, My Lovely, which I already recommended.
Besides freeing the Noir from the usual mystery formula, Thompson also freed it from the city. He wrote Rural Noir – which proves that small towns, cruel, wide open spaces, and Southern Fried settlements can have all the nastiness and violence of the big city. His characters are usually criminals, amoral and greedy. At the end, their own traits destroy them – similar to Greek Tragedy – but it’s not exactly righteous comeuppance. They nice and law-abiding our destroyed too. There’s a kindly veterinarian in The Getaway, for instance, who gets ruined just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s no justice in Thompson’s universe, and no happy endings either.
Recommended Reading: Unfortunately, I’ve only read on Thompson novel – The Getaway – so I’ll have to recommend that. However, The Getaway is really good and I’ve got no problem at all doing so. It’s about a career criminal and the woman he picked up pulling off a bank robbery, double-crossing their pal, and heading to the town of El Rey in Mexico, which is controlled by criminals and serves as a hideout from gringos looking to avoid the law. What struck me about The Getaway is how similar it is to another piece of Post-War Fiction – Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Both are road stories, spending a lot of time in the Midwest, California, and Mexico. Both are about a swaggering rogue and a more staid person being dragged along for the ride. Both feature a hellish betrayal in Mexico, which reveals the callousness and flaws of the rogue. Was there just something in the air in the 40s and 50s that led to nasty betrayals whether you were a criminal or a Beat literature guru? Either way, The Getaway’s casual approach to violence and nasty twist ending makes it well worth checking out.
Recommended Viewing: There’s been a whole bunch of Thompson adaptations and I, um, haven’t really seen that many of them. I could even recommend From Dusk till Dawn if I wanted to, as the criminals in that Robert Rodriguez vampire movie are trying to make it to the city of El Rey created in The Getaway, but instead I’m going to recommend The Grifters. It’s adds elements of Greek Tragedy to a tale of Con Artists, does a great job creating a timeless Fifties-esque setting, and even had a screenplay written by the new author on my list, the great Donald Westlake. It’s well worth checking out.