Imagine a world of lurid and sexy deception, a world where the women and men are physically attractive but cannot be trusted, a world where fortunes are easily found and easily lost, a world where anyone who works for a living is a fool, and where violence is always just about to happen. That is the world of Jim Thompson’s novel The Grifters.
There is a plot to the novel (or at least a storyline of vividly realized scenes) that feature Roy Dillon, his mother Lilly Dillon, and his lover Moira Langtry, but the plot is not the most important aspect of Thompson’s noir classic. Instead, what matters are the feel and taste of the grifters’ world—dirty and hollow, but also addictive and alluring—and the commentary the novel makes on our own society. Published in 1963, when most of America was still living an ideal of normalcy established in the 1950s, The Grifters is lit by the neon gleam of the worst elements of the American dream. The novel’s characters move west to California, conning and manipulating others to make a fortune, but it is a desperate and, for many of them, deadly existence.