Whisky Magazine Issue 35
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Jim Thompson died unknown and poor. But his 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me is now regarded as a masterpiece. Jefferson Chase turns its whisky-drenched pages
Jim Thompson is the James Joyce of hard-boiled American fiction. Born in Oklahoma in 1906, his first job was at a seedy Texas hotel during Prohibition, where he was well-regarded for his ability to scare up a pint of whiskey at all hours.
Broke and dependent on the stuff he used to procure for guests, he turned to writing in the 1940s, eventually producing somewhere between 29 and 50 works, mostly straight-to-paperback pulp novels and uncredited film scripts for Hollywood. Hardly the conditions under which great literature is produced, yet they led him to develop a stream-of-consciousness crime fiction often imitated but never equalled in its humour, fatalism and brutality.
Thompson's works fall into categories: third-person narratives where he flits between multiple characters and first person monologues that reveal an ability to get into the heads of psychotic misfits who “started the game with a crooked cue.”
The best of the latter – and Thompson's consensus masterpiece – is The Killer Inside Me (1952). The protagonist is the cliché-loving, lay-about sheriff Lou Ford, who isn't at all the good-humoured simpleton his constituency takes him to be: I've...leaned against a store front with my hat pushed back and one boot hooked back around the other – hell, you've probably seen me if you've ever been out this way – I've stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn't piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I'm laughing myself sic...