Seen it All in a Small Town

Pop. 1280
Jim Thompson

We’ve been here before.

Here is Thompson country. Thompson is Jim Thompson, a post-war writer of crime fiction with a notable penchant for exploring the darker side of life.

And when I say country I mean country. Like many other Thompson tales, this novel is set well away from the urban centers some folks would like us to believe are where you have to go to find violent crime. I’ve read a lot of Thompson’s work and I assure you, he finds plenty of violence amid the good folk of small-town America.

The social scientist in me desperately wants to explore that subject but it’s a little far afield. Here we have a commercial work of art, a masterwork if I believe the name bestowed by the British publisher on the series in which this particular volume appeared.

Increasingly I find myself considering the choices made by publishers. Part of it is a fascination with books as objects for which I have a particular reverence. And part is wondering just why they make the decisions they do.

I’d said in an earlier piece on a Thompson novel that I  first encountered him during an explosive period that saw a lot of post-war noir fiction republished under the Black Lizard imprint. I don’t recall seeing this title back then, although in searching for the cover picture I see they did reprint it. Still, as masterworks go it strikes me as a somewhat minor one.

When I say small town early-20th-century America this is what I mean.

Nick Corey is the lackadaisical-appearing sheriff of Potts County, residing in Pottsville, which is evidently the county seat.  He is, in his own words, suited for nothing more than being high sheriff.

Whether others believe that is an open question made more pertinent by an approaching election. Nick knows what’s going on in his jurisdiction, he just doesn’t bestir himself to do too much about it. I’m not certain I’ve ever before encountered a lawman whose first calling was as a trencherman.

Nick has a wife and a couple of girlfriends and more than a couple of problems, all of which he’s trying to work out between bouts of drinking whiskey, eating beyond a normal man’s fill and tumbling into bed with his mistresses. He even attempts to share his affections with his wife, a woman the word harpy was coined for, but is physically rebuffed.

Thompson has always been an excellent craftsman, excelling in producing tightly plotted tales that often have a twist you didn’t see coming. For some odd reason, the French seem to have done a better job translating Thomson’s sensibility to the screen. Maybe that’s why the best American movie made from one of his books was made by a Brit–Stephen Frears‘ 1990 adaptation of The Grifters

So, Nick Corey. We meet Nick as he’s heading out to catch the morning train, headed for the next big city., or at least a larger town–four to five thousand people easy. While the period is a little vague, to me it seems to be the early decades of the 20th century. There are 20th-century conveniences, such as home phones and cameras, but there are as many if not more horses and wagons than cars and tractors. Nick does a lot of his sherriffing on two feet.

Of course there’s a feed store. There’s always a feed store.
Click on the photo to visit a neat site about Texas towns.)

If we catch glimpses of Nick’s domestic arrangements at the outset, an encounter on the train starts to round out the picture. He sees Amy Mason, a well-off townswoman whom he approaches. Amy, it turns out, was close to becoming Mrs. Corey until Nick got himself in a pickle at a state or county fair and came home with a wife and her idiot brother. Amy is furious.

In the big city Nick visits with Ken Lacey, a lawman so foul he makes every other crooked cop figure in literature seem like an amateur. A violent, brutal, thin-skinned, bully, Sheriff Lacey treats Corey like the bumpkin he believes him to be. He’ll come to regret that decision but, unknowing, he explains the ways of the world to Corey, trying to knock the damn fool ideas he holds out of his head.

Those damn fool ideas have only a little to do with Corey’s role as sheriff. In that department, it’s fair to say Lacey believes Corey isn’t aggressive enough. No, it’s on the matter of race that a lot of folks find Corey lacking. It’s not that Corey is an angel, it’s that he’s less likely to engage in public displays of his attitudes.

I actually think Corey’s relatively benign behavior on race is meant to distract us. Somewhere around page 35 bodies start piling up and each successive killing is more efficient than the last. The only uncertainty is whether the initial killings are mere score-settling or part of some grander scheme.

While this is actually Washington state, it seems about right for the period I envisioned while reading.
(Click on the photo to read more)

Nick Corey, you see, is not the dimwit many believe him to be. He may not be a swaggering legal presence but he plays the people of his town like a well-tuned piano. He secures his re-election with an all too believable rumor campaign and when he’s confronted about it makes short shrift of his opponent and his would-be successor’s most vocal supporter.

On a smaller scale, he manages to turn the inwardly spiraling mess of his personal life completely around. Oh, sure, the cost is more than a few lives, but Nick is all about self-preservation. If he can’t be high sheriff here can he be it it anywhere? He needs to, he must hang on.

Unless, of course, he’s completely bonkers and life in a small town far removed from urban society has sent him around the bend. To say much more is to give away too much of the plot and with Thompson, I find the enjoyment is in discovering just where it’s all been leading.

I haven’t been able to finish a book since June. I could have done worse than get back on the horse with this one.


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