(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Diversity of themes and settings characterizes Jim Thompson’s paperback originals. He wrote fictionalized autobiography, explored the unstable, high-pressure world of confidence rackets, and used the hard-boiled crime style to write black comedy, including a comic masterpiece, Pop. 1280.

Thompson’s crime novels also take up diverse social themes. As John Steinbeck described the plight of Okies forced off their land and surviving through hard work and strength of character, the Oklahoma-born Thompson portrayed another class of southwestern people, often long detached from the land, living by their wits and luck on the margins of society. In terse paragraphs he described the social and economic impact of soil erosion, the betrayal of the people by railroad corruption, the shenanigans of corrupt politicians, and the human costs of the communist witch-hunt of the 1950’s. He explored the constricted lives of sharecroppers and the plight of Indians (Cropper’s Cabin, 1952), the disease of alcoholism (The Alcoholics, 1953), and the source and nature of black rage (Nothing but a Man, 1970; Child of Rage, 1972).

The Killer Inside Me

Thompson’s reputation and rediscovery rests above all on his unparalleled ability to portray a killer’s mind, often in powerful first-person narrations by a disintegrating criminal personality. Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford, who narrates The Killer Inside Me, stands out from the people around him only because he is friendlier and nicer. His quiet, smiling exterior masks inner rage:I’ve loafed around the streets sometimes, leaned against a store front with my hat pushed back and one boot hooked back around the other. Hell, you’ve probably seen me if you’ve ever been out this way—I’ve stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside. Just watching the people.

Ford, a brilliant young man hiding behind a mask of bland, cliché-spouting stupidity, knows that he is sick. He gently explains to a young delinquent whom he has befriended and is preparing to kill that straight society, while tolerating terrible social injustices, has no place for people like the young man, who commit minor transgressions:They don’t like you guys, and they crack down on you. And the way it looks to me they’re going to be cracking down harder and harder as time goes on. You ask me why I stick around, knowing the score, and it’s hard to explain. I guess I kind of got a foot on both fences, Johnnie. I planted ’em there early and now they’ve taken root, and I can’t move either way and I can’t jump. All I can do is wait until I split. Right down the middle. That’s all I can do.

Ford describes the widening split within him. He does not carry a gun: “People are people, even when they’re a little misguided,” he says. “You don’t hurt them, they won’t hurt you. They’ll listen to reason.” Reason vanishes, however, when he goes to the home of Joyce Lakeland, a pretty young woman engaged in minor prostitution. He tells her to keep her hustling low-key or leave town; she hits him; he beats her unconscious but, once awake, she responds to him sexually, pulling him into a sadomasochistic relationship.

As Ford is drawn to her again and again, he feels “the sickness” returning. He had been sexually abused as a child and had himself molested young girls, for which his brother had been blamed and imprisoned. Now as the sickness returns, he struggles to hold himself together. “I knew she was making me worse; I knew that if I didn’t stop soon I’d never to able to. I’d wind up in a cage or the electric chair.” He finally (apparently) beats Joyce to death, a crime that sets off a chain of events forcing him to kill person after person, including his longtime sweetheart. The sickness gains increasing control. A drifter threatens to expose him: “I grinned, feeling a little sorry for him. It was funny the way these people kept asking for it. . . . Why’d they all have to come to me to get killed? Why couldn’t they kill...

(The entire section is 1710 words.)