Pulp Fiction Redux #2

The Killer Inside Me

By Jim Thompson

Though relatively few serial murders operate at any given time in the U.S., the volume and cold-blooded brutality of their crimes fascinate people, albeit in a horrifying way. (For more on these killers, see the FBI report Serial Murder.) Because the actions and especially the psychology of serial killer is just plain interesting, writers have populated their fiction with them for years, and broadcast media, for their part, have sought ratings with them, i.e. The Following. Few writers, however, have portrayed the demented serial killer as frighteningly and humanly as the great pulp fiction dean of the 1950s, Jim Thompson. Still to this day, few books measure up to Thompson’s classic The Killer Inside Me.

Only a few get to know firsthand the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, and women, too, as well and as intimately as Thompson did. Born in 1906 in the Oklahoma Territory (statehood date: November 16, 1907), he was bright, an avid reader, began writing at an early age, and didn’t much care for formal education. He smoked heavily. He drank heavily. And in his teens, during Prohibition, he worked as a bellboy at the Hotel Texas (a National Register building, now operated by Hilton). Those were wild times in Texas, affording Thompson an eye-opening look at the seamy side of life, as in illegal liquor, drugs, and sex, all of which he procured for guests. It wouldn’t be overstating to say he received the pulp and crime writer’s perfect education.

Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me appeared in 1952. In it, Lou Ford is a consummate serial killer created by a writer who, as the above brief bio demonstrates, knew his way around the dark nooks and crannies of the troubled, impassioned, and diseased minds of wayward people better than most, and who masterfully portrayed these traits in simple, stark, and powerful language, as in this pulp literature masterpiece.

The Killer Inside Me, among his best, serves as the blueprint for the nearly-perfect serial killer novel because it plunks you down inside the mind of the killer; you see the world through his off kilter eyes. If you’re looking for crime fiction that stands heads and shoulders above the usual genre fare stuffed with overly dramatized and generally implausible protagonists, The Killer Inside Me may be what you want.

The Killer Inside Me offers you Lou Ford, the aw-shucks deputy who appears a little slow on the uptake, who handily dispenses clichés upon every occasion, who, in short, strikes you as a pretty nice, ineffective guy in the beginning and then in the end, amazingly, given his predilection for murder, a sympathetic, tormented man. It’s a credit to Thompson’s skill that you feel for Ford in at the conclusion.

Don’t assume that just because The Killer Inside Me appeared in 1952 that the prose is censored milquetoast. Thompson’s writing is blunt and raw, as in the scene in which Lou cold-bloodedly kills Joyce, the prostitute he’s been frequenting and abusing as he executes his plan of revenge against local big-deal Chester Conway: “I backed her against the wall, slugging, and it was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving away at once.” Or this, after inflicting a brutal beating upon his fiancé, leaving her barely alive while he awaits the person he plans to frame for her murder: “I sat down and tried to read the paper. I tried to keep my eyes on it. But the light wasn’t very good, not good enough to read by, and she kept moving around. It looked like she couldn’t lie still.” Those are the thoughts of a true psychopath.

Don’t fear extraneous excursions into back stories and side narratives; or excessive descriptions of the countryside or characters. Thompson gives exactly enough to provide context and move the story along swiftly. That’s no mean ability; it earned him a living as a screen and television writer for Stanley Kubrick and others.

Do expect sharply drawn characters. You’ll get to know Lou, Joyce, Elmer, Chester, Johnnie (who put his trust in a psychopath who understood only self-preservation), Amy (who campaigned to marry Lou to unfortunate results), and the others not through elaborate descriptions but through what they say and do.

And do expect a realistic serial killer who goes about his business in a straightforward way, a killer who is at heart a sociopath, a manipulator of people, who Thompson based on emerging research on psychopathology, research that forms the foundation of modern thinking about these people.

Highly recommended not only as the best of crime fiction but also a fine literary experience. And don’t accept the filmed versions as a substitute for the real thing, please. w/c

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