Jim Thompson Biography


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Jim Thompson’s childhood was quite unconventional, according to his wife, Alberta. Born James Myers Thompson, he grew up in Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska, where his brilliant and charismatic but erratic father first triumphed and then hit the bottom in one career after another, finally going bankrupt in oil after having made millions. Jim Thompson shared his father’s brilliance and his inability to establish order in his life. While still in high school, he began his long struggle with alcohol, despairing at the meaninglessness of life and generating a self-destructive rage at the stupidity and parochialism of society around him.

He attended the University of Nebraska for a few years and married Alberta there in 1931. To feed his wife and three children during the Great Depression, he worked in hotels, oil fields, collection agencies, and vegetable fields. He had had his first story published at the age of fifteen and earned extra money by writing true-crime stories, character sketches, and vignettes of his experiences with the down-and-out people around him. His appointment in the late 1930’s as director of the Oklahoma Writers Project inspired him to break into the larger publishing world. He wrote two excellent novels, Now and on Earth (1942) and Heed the Thunder (1946), but despite praise from critics, neither book sold. Thompson worked on several major newspapers and briefly served as editor-in-chief of Saga...

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Life in The Grifters is portrayed as lurid, seamy, and vivid—and Jim Thompson knew that life firsthand. Thompson was born in a jailhouse in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906. Thompson’s father was a sheriff (which gave his son the chance to observe law enforcement up close) and ran for state legislature (which gave his son some feel for politics). However, Jim Thompson also had many chances to see the underbelly of authority. His father was a gambler who eventually lost his sheriff’s position when he mishandled funds.

Thompson went to high school and worked as a bellboy during Prohibition, a period in U.S. history from 1920 to 1933 when it was forbidden to make or sale alcohol. This meant that he was in touch with local gangsters and often ran errands at night for illegal alcohol and drugs. Thompson led such an intense life that he had a breakdown when he was only nineteen years old. Other elements of Thompson’s personal experience are reflected in The Grifters as well. For example, when he became involved with his wife Alberta, her parents disapproved, so they eloped; one can see echoes of this in the various relationships that suffer social disapproval in the novel.

Thompson started writing at a young age, publishing his first short works when he was still a teenager. He published in magazines throughout the 1920s and then shifted to writing novels in the 1930s. Thompson hit his stride in the 1950s, authoring twenty books in the decade, including the 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me, which established his literary reputation. He died in 1977.


In a sense, Jim Thompson was born and raised to write The Killer Inside Me. His father, James Sherman Thompson, was a sheriff in the Oklahoma Territory, and Jim himself was born in a jailhouse. Sheriff Thompson was a large man known to be kind, but he also liked to show off his self-taught knowledge of medicine, much like Lou Ford does in The Killer Inside Me. While there is not, thankfully, any suspicion of Thompson’s father having been the sort of killer Lou Ford is, the elder Thompson did have cases involving famous criminals, and, according to Thompson’s biographer Robert Polito, he did engage in the small-scale corruption and abuse of power that Lou also does.

Beyond this family background, Thompson essentially educated himself in the areas that would influence The Killer Inside Me. While still in high school, he worked as a bellboy in a hotel in Houston. Because he was employed during the period of Prohibition, his job entailed obtaining illegal alcohol, acquiring drugs, and generally associating with a criminal underground. This led to Thompson’s nervous breakdown at age nineteen and a drinking problem that stretched through his entire life.

Thompson eventually recovered from the breakdown and went on to lead a varied and interesting life. He worked in oil fields and on pipelines, wrote for the New York Daily News, and published almost thirty novels before he died in 1977.


Venal, bumbling, and violent sheriffs show up more than once in Jim Thompson’s novels, but biographer Robert Polito argues that Pop. 1280 is Thompson’s most autobiographical—a direct “slam against his father.”

Thompson’s father was a county sheriff in Oklahoma, but the family had to leave the state for Texas after he was accused of embezzling money. His father, however, was not the only model for the corruption portrayed in Pop. 1280, as Thompson himself witnessed much of it directly. As a teenager, he worked as a bellboy for the Hotel Texas. Because he was employed during Prohibition, his duties included procuring illegal alcohol for the guests, and since criminals were the ones selling it, Thompson also had access to marijuana and heroin. Before that, he had gone to burlesque shows with his grandfather when Thompson was only thirteen years old, an experience that may have contributed to his lurid portrayals of female sexuality. He also knew a little about sneaking around in relationships: he and his wife, Alberta, married in 1931, eloping into Oklahoma and then keeping their marriage a secret.

Thompson lived all over Texas, worked in oil fields, and traveled widely throughout the larger region. Employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression, Thompson undertook a city-by-city tour of Oklahoma, writing a guide to the state. This no doubt gave him extensive firsthand experience of countless small towns like Pottsville in Pop. 1280.

When Thompson died in 1977, most of his work was out of print. His writing, along with his influence on later authors, was reevaluated by critics during the 1980s and 1990s. Thompson has since been acknowledged as a master of noir fiction.