Pop. 1280 occupies a special place in Jim Thompson's catalog of novels. Like The Killer Inside Me, it is about a sheriff in a small town in Texas who convinces everyone he is a fool while cleverly manipulating criminals and upstanding citizens alike to keep the peace and make life as easy and enjoyable for himself as he can.
The two books are so similar it is tempting to think that when Thompson wrote Pop. 1280 in 1964, he was trying to repeat the success he had with The Killer Inside Me in 1952. Whether or not that was his motive, he accomplished much more. Pop. 1280 is a better novel.
Lou Ford, the sheriff in "Killer" is a psychopath. He is consistently cruel and profoundly unfeeling toward his fellow human beings. Many have remarked that Thompson's portrayal of this type of criminal is unequaled, perhaps because the story is narrated by him in the first person.
Nick Corey, the sheriff in Pop. 1280 is more complex. While capable of being cruel and manipulative, he has genuine feelings for the three women he visits for sex. He has a sense of justice and will do what he must to set things right in his town, even if that means breaking some rules. And he feels guilty when circumstances force him to hurt an innocent person.
Perhaps Thompson was able to treat this subject with greater nuance because by 1964, he was a more experienced writer and as a more mature man
I haven't read all of Jim Thompson's novels. Once I had read those recommended as his best, I stopped keeping a list titles. But when I saw this one in a bookstore, I grabbed it on a whim. I'm glad I did.
Mitch Corley, the hero of Texas by the Tail, is more relatable than many of Thompson's main characters. He's not a psychopath like Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me; he isn't an assassin like Charley Bigger in Savage Night; he isn't a thief and murderer like Doc McCoy in The Getaway.
Mitch Corley is a professional gambler who knows how to make the dice do what he wants and is always happy to separate a fool from his money. Like several of Thompson's other heroes, he's trying to make a good life for himself and the woman he loves, despite his flaws.
What makes Texas by the Tail so surprising and satisfying is the narrative voice. "Texas" is not narrated in the first person as are the Thompson novels critics like best, Also, this omniscient narrator is more authoritative than those of After Dark My Sweet, and The Grifters, for instance,
In "Texas," the narrator occasionally takes a paragraph or two to describe the social character of the places where the action is set, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth. He also editorializes on Mitch's dubious assumptions and decisions. The reader feels the author hovering over the action more than in other novels by Thompson.
Probably this is because "Texas" was written late in Thompson's career, 1965, when he had been writing for film and television for several years. His most productive years as a novelist, 1952 to 1955, were behind him. It is as if he returns to the novel, feeling free of the requirements of the paperback originals he had turned out at an astonishing rate (twelve books in three years).
Texas by the Tail reads more like a mainstream novel than those earlier books, though the dread of watching the hero make his way in a corrupt world is just as profound. This probably shouldn't be a reader's first novel by Thompson, but it is not to be missed.
Gold Medal was one of the publishers offering paperback originals in the 1950s. A Trio of Gold Medals from Stark House Press contains three short novels of that era. Reading them has been an eye-opener.
It's easy to see these authors were writing for the same market as Jim Thompson. The world in which their stories are set is dark. Law enforcement is corrupt. The hero is a criminal. Women are just as likely to be greedy and cruel as men. There's a lot of drinking.
And yet, these books were not as satisfying as Thompson's. I know from Robert Polito's biography of Thompson, Savage Art, that the first 30 years of his life were dark, violent, full of cruel desperate people, and there was a lot of drinking. When Thompson wrote a novel with those elements, he was writing about his life.
I don't know the backgrounds of these authors, but their books read as if they are writing about things they have only read about in other books. They write very well, but they seem to be telling someone else's story.
However, this is my first glimpse of the other paperback original authors, Stark House press has more than sixty of them on their list of crime writers, and some of them may be well worth reading alongside Thompson. The quest continues.
Reading that brief online biography of Jim Thompson by Patrick Deese prompted me to seek out the book-length biography by Robert Polito, Savage Art, published in 1995. It is 500 pages of detailed research, served up in easy-to-read prose.
Among its revelations is the idea that Thompson never set out to be a writer of crime fiction. In 1931, he majored in Agricultural Journalism at the University of Nebraska. While there he wrote and published nonfiction except for one detective story in Nebraska Farmer.
During the 1940s, he published Now and on Earth and Heed the Thunder, novels based on his years working on the farms of Nebraska and Oklahoma and in the oil fields of West Texas. He seemed on the way to a career comparable to that of his contemporary, John Steinbeck.
Thompson turned to crime---crime-writing that is---out of necessity. His mainstream novels would not pay the bills. In 1949, at the age of 42, he published his first crime novel, Nothing More than Murder.
Thanks to the introduction of paperback originals in the 1950s, a lucrative market for genre fiction opened up, and publishers called out for writers to supply it. Thompson went on to produce what some call the greatest American crime novels.
In the biography by Patrick Deese I quoted in my last post, I found not only a good illustration of how Jim Thompson learned to write crime stories but also an indication of how different things are today for writers starting out.
Deese says, "Thompson made ends meet for a few years by writing pieces for true crime magazines . . . ." Today, I doubt anyone is making ends meet by writing for any kind of magazine. I haven't tried it, but from what I hear the best one can do is pick up a little side money.
To prove his point, Deese says, "At the height of their popularity, in the 1930's, these magazines (with titles like True Detective, Master Detective, and Intimate Detective) paid very, very well, $250 for a 6000 word article, the exact rate they now offer in the 1990's."
Without doing the arithmetic, I think it's obvious that $250 was a good week's income in the 1930's, and was still worth something in the 1990s. Yet I doubt there are many magazines paying $250 for any kind of short story in 2018.
It seems as if this entry-level income is no longer available to writers getting their start. These days, the writer's apprenticeship, like so many others, is unpaid.
Reading through the references on Jim Thompson's Wikipedia page, I enjoyed this biography by Patrick Deese. In particular, Deese offers this insight into how Thompson learned to write crime stories:
"Thompson made ends meet for a few years [in the early 1930s] by writing pieces for true crime magazines . . . His wife and sister would comb the newspaper archives, looking for murders, which Thompson would then rewrite into a popular set of first-person view point articles. It was here that Thompson cut his teeth and honed his sinister style. "
When Deese says "first person view point" he refers to the way these magazines presented crimes stories "as told to" a writer by the detective who solved them. If Thompson and other writers worked from news stories, the detective may have done no more than endorse the story as written.
Re-writing news stories from the point of view of someone involved sounds like a great writing exercise. Thompson would have developed an ability to make a story sound like it was being told by a big-city homicide detective, a small-town chief of police, or other law officer.
This facility for writing in the first person served Thompson well. Many critics think his best novels are those written in the first person---The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, Savage Night, and others. Arguably no one has done first person better than Thompson.
Many think Jim Thompson was at his best writing novels about bad-guy heroes, as he did in The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, and others. I would agree he is among the best at that kind of suspense novel, along with James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, and some more recent writers. But he wrote other kinds of books, and some of them are amazingly good.
The Kill-Off is a murder mystery such as Agatha Christie wrote. We meet a character who is so unlikable we wish someone would murder her. We meet a small community of characters each of whom has a good reason to do the deed. When someone does, we try to figure out who did it, or, as fans say, whodunit. Obviously this is in the tradition of Murder at the Vicarage, Murder on the Orient Express and other Christie classics.
At first, it's hard to see the similarity because Thompson's setting has little in common with Christie's English country houses. There is no elegance, no sophistication. His fictional resort town is down on it's luck and populated by people just trying to get by. He wrote about the world he knew.
Though working in a familiar form, Thompson did something extraordinary in The Kill-Off: there is no sleuth. No equivalent of Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, or, for that matter, Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe. No genius to solve the mystery. Christie did this as well, though I am aware of only one example, And Then There Were None.
And Thompson did something I've never seen anywhere else. Each chapter is narrated in the first person by a different character---twelve chapters, twelve characters telling their own stories of past connections to the victim and others in town and telling where they were on the night of the murder . . . except when they're lying.
Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith were geniuses at making the bad guy the hero. They didn't invent the idea. For instance, Shakespeare gave us a heroic villain in Richard III. But Highsmith and Thompson created an American art form based on following the bad guy instead of the good guy. Their work carries on today with books like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which, as many have pointed out, every character is a scoundrel.
They seem to have accomplished this almost simultaneously. Thompson published his first suspense novel in 1949; Highsmith published hers in 1950. Thompson published arguably his greatest work, The Killer Inside Me, in 1952; Highsmith published hers, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in 1955.
Their careers ran parallel in several ways. He published twenty-five novels; she published 22. Both of them saw many adaptations for film and television, and their stories continue to be adapted to this day, although Highsmith had notably better luck in her lifetime, beginning with her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's classic film of the same title.
Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921 and grew up there. At that time, Thompson, lived in Fort Worth, working odd jobs, selling his first stories, and gathering experiences that would turn up in his novels.
But for all that, they seem to have been unaware of each other. Andrew Wilson's biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadows, makes no mention of Thompson; Michael J. MacCauley's biography of Thompson, Sleep with the Devil, makes no mention of Highsmith.
Their careers also differ in several ways. Highsmith methodically published a novel about every other year throughout her adult life. Thompson published almost half his novels in just three years: two in 1952, five in 1953, and five in 1954. His biographer, MacCauley, notes these were essentially the only years of his life when he was sober.
The most important difference between them was the point of view they used in their novels. Highsmith wrote in the third person, thus referring to the hero-bad-guy as "he," and she had a good reason for doing so: "I have quite a bit of introspection in my heroes, and to write all this in the first person makes them sound like nasty schemers, which of course they are, but they seem less so if some all-knowing author is telling what is going on in their heads."
Apparently Thompson wasn't concerned what his bad-guys sounded like. He wrote in the first person, referring to the hero as "I." Here's a bit of introspection from Nick Corey the hero of Pop. 1280, recalling why his father beat him, "The fact was, I guess, that he just couldn't stand for me to be any good. If I was any good, then I couldn't be the low-down monster that had killed my own mother in getting born. And I had to be that. He had to have someone to blame."
A fellow writer asked what I was reading. When I said Jim Thompson, she asked what kind of novels he wrote. I told her The Killer Inside Me, published in 1952, is considered his masterpiece. It's a novel about Lou Ford, whose father, a physician, explained to him that his personality fits the definition of psychopath.
"Like Dexter," said my fellow writer, referring to the popular TV series with Michael C. Hall. True, except that Lou Ford's father does not teach him a moral code. Lou freely indulges his sadistic tendencies and does whatever serves his own interests. Since he is the sheriff in his hometown, he remains above suspicion.
As if that weren't chilling enough, The Killer Inside Me is in the first person. Lou Ford tells his own story. He speaks directly to us. The Killer Inside Me is not Thompson's only first-person, bad-guy novel. Pop. 1280, A Hell of a Woman, and Savage Night are also fine examples.
Though most critics think Thompson was at his best with this type of novel, I think his others are well worth reading. The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, and The Getaway are powerful examples of noir suspense told in the third person.