The Killer Inside Me
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume)
I know when to say “Uncle.” The Library of America (LOA) has beaten me.
Not in any serious way, mind you. But a bruised ego is still a bruised ego and I don’t acknowledge failure easily. Who’d have thought that the emissary of my demise would be crime fiction?
I suppose an explanation is due. When I started this project I intended to write about books as I finished them. What I hadn’t considered were the multi-volume titles the LOA publishes.
For a long time, I camouflaged my troubles. The 1930s noir volume was easily breezed through. The Hamilton volume featured the writings of a public man, mostly on the shorter side. The Twain volume took me over a year to get through, but there was plenty of other stuff going on so no one but me would ever notice.
Then, the 1950s came along and laid me low. So I have made the decision to write about each collected novel separately and take as much time with each one as I need. I’m sure you’d consider doing the same in my shoes.
That brings me to west-central Texas and the crime fiction of Jim Thompson. Sometime in the late 1980s there was a Jim Thompson craze. His novels (well, many of them) were republished in complementary covers by Black Lizard Books. Movies based on them were suddenly green lighted. Punk bands celebrated Jim. I fell for him hard, tearing through dozens of titles and stories.
Then I was done and hadn’t thought about him again until I opened the covers of this book. Everything I remember from my initial encounters is still there–the language, the images and, most of all, the sense of menace and the sudden explosions of violence rendered in near-sickening detail. I must be getting old because I don’t remember feeling nauseated the last time I read this novel.
The Killer Inside Me is the tale of Lou Ford, a 29-year old deputy sheriff in a small Texas town far from anywhere. Ford has a girlfriend, of sorts, and a back story that emerges over the course of the tale, but when we first encounter him he’s just a cop on the beat, scaring a local youth straight and accepting a cup of coffee from the owner of the local diner.
In the course of making his rounds he runs into Chester Conway, the man who calls all the shots in town. An almost stock figure in any book set in small-town America, Chester owns the most property, runs the biggest businesses in town and owns the pols and police. Of course, he has a son–Elmer, a nogoodnik who’s a simpleton to boot–and that’s where the trouble starts.
Joyce Lakeland–a woman of a certain occupation has taken up residence outside of town but within its jurisdiction. Elmer Conway has taken a fancy to her and convinced himself he’s going to get his inheritance early and hit the road with his beloved.
His father has a better idea: he’ll have his friends in law enforcement visit the young woman and convince her to set up shop elsewhere. The whole thing is to be handled on the q.t. so it can’t be traced back and Junior can settle down to take up his apprenticeship , and rightful place, in running the town.
There’s one slight hitch, though, maybe two. The bigger is that Ford Is holding a grudge. His brother died on a construction site owned by Conway and the circumstances suggest it wasn’t the accident it was officially ruled. The second is that he’s attracted to the woman and the attraction is reciprocated. It’s just the underlying stimulus that’s different.
Ford’s initial visit with Joyce quickly turns from talk to tumble and their hook-ups–which continue–are the epitome of the violent love Otis Rush sang about. They hatch a separate plan: Junior will be induced to show up with as much of Dad’s money as he can get his hands on so he can blow off this one horse town with his true love. Only he’ll be the goose and Ford and Lakeland will escape with his cash.
Except that it’s not that easy and Ford’s grudge–or is it his sickness?– has roots even deeper than his brother’s death. He plans a triple cross that will enable him to leave town where he’s imprisoned in his role and his past.
To say much more is to give the game away. So let me dwell on what’s most startling about this novel. Told in the first person, Ford’s voice is affectless. He could be talking about house painting in the same tone of voice. The Cain and Hammett novels of the thirties didn’t lack for terseness and violence, but you got the sense there were people involved, people with real emotions.
Here, our hero is a cipher. Able to handle long hours of patrolling and the claustrophobic loneliness of an isolated town, he explodes as easily as a match is lit. The result is not pretty and the instantaneous transition from placid to violent is startling. It is also so well-rendered that it works again and again, long after the readers should have seen it coming.
There’s a marked shift in tone between this book, penned just after the end of WWII, and the crime thrillers of the pre-War Depression era. I wanted to chalk that up to Thompson’s wartime experiences, but he was the right age for escaping both of the big wars; he spent part of the Second working in an aircraft factory.
But something was in the air. something different. The bleakness, the sense that nothing really matters, and the sudden explainable shifts in behavior, those are distinct and mark a new way of looking at the world, a very modern way of looking at it that moves past entertainment and storytelling to a place where the terror lurking inside us all is made manifest.
It isn’t a pretty sight.
Although sure to rankle in the age of woke, Otis Rush’s 1956 single really should be better known. Otis is gone, he passed away last September. Here’s your opportunity to hear him in his prime.
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