The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

The Killer Inside MeThe Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Welcome to a small dusty town in Texas, where there’s not a lot of crime and the local sheriff is a cliche-spouting guy who loves his work whom the community respects, if finds a little slow.

Welcome to hell.

Jim Thompson made his mark with dark, gritty crime novels like this. On the surface, they’re not dissimilar from the usual hardboiled affairs. Once you get a few chapters in, things take a turn for the weird and spiral out of control; take the physical deformities of Carl, the psychotic, paranoid killer in Savage Night.

Things start banal here and quickly go to hell. It follows Lou Ford, a small-town cop in a dusty Texas oil town, who struggles with what he calls The Sickness: his compulsion to kill people. As cover, he plays the fool for the locals, dropping hammy clichés like “Well yes, I guess the son is father of the man, yessir,” with a regularity that fools most of the people, right down to his good-natured girlfriend. But not all.

He starts seeing another woman outside of town, someone who doesn’t just see his darkness but gets off on it. He starts off savagely, violently abusing her; she loves it. It’s all downhill from there for Ford: the more he sees her, the more he succumbs. Soon, he starts murdering. One leads to another, which leads to another and so it goes until there’s a big body count and The Sickness Ford keeps mentioning early in the book fades from view. It’s already taken over.

But the weirdest thing about this book isn’t its violence  (its especially graphic in its violence towards women) but the dark charms of Ford. Thompson lays him out as a good guy, someone the reader doesn’t just trust but wants to see overcome his sickness. It’s a trap: by the time one realizes the good front was all a facade, they’re already ear-deep in this story and like Ford, they’ve got to let it run it’s course. It’s a little reminiscent of other literary monsters like Humbert Humbert: he too spends most of his time trying to seduce and charm readers, tries to convince them he’s really a good guy at heart. And it’s easy to fall for it; god knows most of Central City, Texas did.

As a writer, I’m not sure Thompson ever got more cynical than this. You can read deep into it, wondering exactly what drives people to authority and what darkness they’re trying to hide from view. Alternately, you can read it as a forerunner to more recent, less successful examples of this type: Brett Ellis’ American Psycho or Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter series. Neither protagonist is starkly vicious as Ford and neither writer has Thompson’s restrained, tight prose.

Rating: 6/10. Personally, I’m more of a Savage Night guy, which is darker, bleaker and weirder than The Killer…, ending in a biblical frenzy of paranoia. But I’m not selling The Killer… short, either: it’s a good read by someone who wrote some of the best (and most disturbing) crime thrillers of his time. Recommended, especially the Library of America volume that includes this with several other great noir stories.




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