How’s it feel to be paranoid? – Jim Thompson’s Savage Night

Savage Night

Savage Night – Jim Thompson
Vintage Crime / Black Lizard 

I was thinking the other day about Whitey Bulger. Maybe you remember the story: Bulger was arrested last June after spending 16 years in hiding. He spent a good part of that time on the FBI’s most wanted list.

I was less interested in what Bulger was alleged to have done than in what his life must have been like, being on the run for 16 years. The reporting suggests he was careful, not cultivating many friendships, keeping workers out of his apartment and spending his nights in, watching TV. But what did that feel like? Was he constantly looking over his shoulder? Did he freeze every time the phone rang? Begin to sweat when someone walked by his front door?

What I wonder, I think, is what if feels like when your life takes a turn where you can’t trust anybody anymore as a matter of survival. And it got me to thinking about Jim Thompson.

Thompson’s famous for a kind of twisted style of crime fiction. Perhaps his most famous book is about a sheriff who’s also a cold-blooded killer. Others feature characters who spent time in mental institutions, were abused and con men. One I recently enjoyed was Savage Night.

It’s centered around Carl Bigelow, who’s either a hitman sent to kill somebody set to rat out on the mob or a young man going to teacher’s college. Most of the book hinges around on identity: if Bigelow is really somebody else, who else is pretending – and who are they after? Appearance-altering contact lenses and fake teeth play a large role in this novel.

This paranoia spills all over the place. Routine events become the setting for a double-cross. A bakery-worker neighbour isn’t just another killer hired for the same purpose, but maybe one planning to kill him, too. The wife wants the husband out, but is she working with the cops? And just why are the cops so friendly, anyway?

Savage Night is a short book packed with violence, lying and tons of paranoia. And in between bouts of killing, it’s punctuated with disturbing imagery from biblical verses spelled out of ripped-apart magazines to deformed bodies. The book gradually moves from crime novel to a disturbing horror story, but given Bigelow’s state of mind, it’s fitting. Every corner is a trap, every person out to get him. Whenever he kills someone, it’s not because they needed to, but because of what they could do.

It’s vintage Thompson. It’s a somewhat typical story turned on it’s side, then flipped around and back and forth. It builds up to an insane, schizophrenic finish. And it’s a hell of a ride, too. It’s probably hard as hell to live with paranoia, but it makes for an engaging story.

Rating: 7/10. I really enjoyed Savage Night. It’s a blistering, short and wild read. Sure, it occasionally trips over itself as it zigs and zags and it’s occasionally hard to follow, but overall, it’s a fun, disturbing ride. I’m not sure it completely works, but when it does, it really does. Recommended .


2 Responses to “How’s it feel to be paranoid? – Jim Thompson’s Savage Night”

  1. 1 Marilyn
    October 18, 2011 at 2:38 am

    Sounds intriguing. Thanks for the report!

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