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Jim Thompson biography




Jim Thompson

(1906 - 1977)

American novelist and screenwriter, best-known for his paperback pulp novels and his ability to enter the minds of criminally insane. Thompson knew, that he was not destined for big success, but before he died he told his wife to protect his manuscripts and copyrights, anticipating posthumous fame. He was right, after ten years of his death.

"I've loafed streets sometimes, learned 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." (from The Killer Inside Me, 1952)

James Meyers (Jim) Thompson was born in Oklahoma. His father James Thompson was a sheriff of Andarko, Oklahoma, who foiled jail breaks and arrested horse thieves. He also was a chronic gambler and was in 1907 dismissed for misappropriating funds. Avoiding arrest, he fled to Mexico. For the next 14 years he traveled from one oil field to another with his family and managed to get a fortune before going bankrupt. In 1921 he suffered a breakdown and died in an institution 20 years later.

Thompson received his B.A. from the University of Nebraska. He held a numerous jobs - beginning as an oil well and pipeline worker. He become affiliated during the Depression with the Federal Writers Project in Oklahoma, helping to turn out guidebooks of the state. In this period, when trading in liquor was illegal, Thompson got to know the local gangsters, losers, corrupt civil servants, and later depicted their world in his books. In 1931 he married Alberta Thompson; they had two children. He also joined the Communist party and made friends with other political activists, such as folk singer Woody Guthrie.

In the 1940s Thompson turned to crime fiction as a way of making money. Thompson published his first novel, NOW AND ON EARTH, in 1942. In it the father of the protagonist dies in an asylum, killing himself by eating the stuffing from his mattress, a fate Thompson often claimed for his own father. Thompson's autobiography, BAD BOY, appeared in 1953. It depicted his chaotic coming of age, bootlegging, and how he almost got himself beaten to death by a homicidal sheriff's deputy.

Thompson worked as a journalist for the New York Daily News and for the Los Angeles Times Mirror. In the 1950s he was blacklisted during the period of Joseph McCarthy's "crusade" against Communists. Later he was summoned to Hollywood by the director Stanley Kubrick to co-write screenplays. The Killing (1956) was a downbeat movie about robbery at a race-track. Kubrick showed in it his characteristic precision and care in the construction. Sterling Hayden played Johnny Clay who plans the robbery, but in the end most of his gang is shot and he loses the money. Paths of Glory (1957) was an anti-war film based on Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel. The story was set in the French trenches of World War I, starring Kirk Douglas and Adolphe Menjou. Kubrick rewrote the script with Thompson. Douglas considered it a catastrophe and he demanded that they use the original script, which was done. In Hollywood Thompson also wrote scripts for Dr. Kildare series.

Thompson's fifth book, THE KILLER INSIDE ME (1952), made his reputation. The central character and first-person narrator is a small town sheriff Lou Ford, who pretends to be a dim-witted, but who in fact is a cunning, complex, even brilliant madman, and plays cat and mouse with the world. Stanley Kubrick considered the book the most chilling account of a criminally warped mind he has ever encountered. In the film version from 1976, directed by Burt Kennedy, the outwardly amiable deputy sheriff Lou Ford says: "When things get a little rough, I just go out and kill a few people." Another sharply portrayed psychopath is found in THE NOTHING MAN (1954), in which the protagonist, a newspaperman Clinton Brown, drinks and kills but cannot even get himself blamed for the crimes he commits.

In the 1950s Thompson wrote nearly 20 novels, without much polishing them. He was frequently broke and sometimes separated from his family. His problems with the liquor Thompson depicted in THE ALCOHOLICS. Because of a moderate success he wrote fast, and repeated himself in later works, recycling among others The Killer Inside Me again in POP. 1280 (1964). The awarded mystery writer and critic H.R.F. Keating selected it in 1987 for his list of the one hundred best crime novels. "The great merit of the novels of Jim Thompson is that they are completely without good taste, and of them perhaps Pop. 1280 (the title refers to the population of a small town in an imaginary Potts County in deepest America) has the least good taste of all." (Keating in Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987) In the story Nick Corey is seemingly a weak sheriff, but he eventually but eventually shoots one of his tormentors. When he kicks him he comments "it wasn't real nice to kick a dying man, and maybe it wasn't. But I'd been wanting to kick him for a long time, and it just never had seemed safe till now."

Several of Thompson's stories are set in the deep South, moving in the similar atmosphere of decay and macabre as William Faulkner in his novels. Faulknerian twisted family relationships marked THE GRIFTERS (1963), a story about a doomed Oedipus character, Roy Dillon. He wants to have an stable life, is cheated by his mother, Lilly, and dies rather clumsily. Lilly hits him with her handbag as he takes a drink of water - the glass breaks and cuts his throat. Stephen Frears' film version of the book gained four Academy Award nominations, including best adapted screenplay for Donald Westlake. "The film immediately sets up a parallel between the three swindlers - Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston), Roy Dillon (John Cusack), and Moira Langtry (Annette Bening) - by crosscutting between them and putting them on a split screen. Thompson's focus is clearly on Roy as the only one of the three who stands any chance of redemption. In the film, however, none of them are redeemable. In the novel, for example, Roy's guilty seduction of Carol introduces a moral dimension to the story, marking him as a man who does distinguish between innocence and experience, a distinction not made in the film." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)

Thompson's novels depict a world, which is populated by barflies, grifters, losers, psychopaths and where nothing is certain. Or as the writer once said: "There are 32 ways to write a story, and I have used every one, but there is only one plot - things are not what they seem."An example of Thompson's skill to find new approaches to the old turns of plot in crime novel is seen in THE GETAWAY (1959). It starts with a bank robbery that goes wrong, then returns years later to the life of the criminal mastermind Doc and his wife who are chased by the police and criminals. Thompson finally leaves the couple at a hideout, which is a kind of prison, only much worse.

In the 1970s Thompson had several apoplectic strokes. He died in Los Angeles on April 7, 1977. In 1990 Grifters, an film adaptation of his work, received four Oscar nominations. In the U.S. Thompson remained a minor figure in the history of pulp fiction until some academic critics and publishers resurrected his work. His dialogue was seen as crisp as Hammett's, prose as convincing as Chandler's. Most of his novels and some of his uncollected short fiction have been reprinted. Thompson's dark, violent view of the world has influenced such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino. Thompson himself was an admirer of the classic Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Information source: wikipedia