Critical Overview

While some of Thompson’s novels were reviewed when they first came out, many were not given serious critical attention due to the genre in which he worked (mystery /noir fiction), the time period (the conservative 1950s), the specific area of publishing where he found fame (the pulps), and, in part, due to the vivid attention Thompson put on topics considered not fit for public discussion at the time—drug use, violence, and sexuality. Despite this combination of circumstances, which might have rendered a lesser writer forgotten, Thompson had champions even during his lifetime. As his biographer Robert Polito observes, Lion Books tried to get The Killer Inside Me nominated for the National Book Award for 1952. Anthony Boucher, an author and critic who wrote some mysteries but who was best known for his science fiction, celebrated Thompson’s works for their surreal, experimental qualities, their intense horror, and especially for their “subtle study of the interplay of conscious and subconscious motivation.”

However, for the most part, while he lived Thompson had to make do with being a well-paid entertainer. He knew his quality, though, and predicted that he would be revered after he was dead, which he was. French critics embraced his work and started filming it in the late 1970s. This led to more general American reexamination of his work. Thompson has come to be seen as a master of the noir genre. Some place him on par with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and recent years have seen reissue of most of Thompson’s work as well as a veneration of his intensity.