Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (London: Orion, 2006 ). A hard-hitting noir crime novel, whose complex and disturbing portrait of a killer will linger in the mind 5 stars
Opening line: I’d just finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him.
Every now and then, you encounter a crime novel you know you have to read straight away. So it was with Jim Thompson’s classic 1952 American noir The Killer Inside Me, which made it from the Waterstone’s bookshelf to the nice lady at the till and into my eager hands in the space of five minutes.
Lou Ford is Deputy Sheriff of Central City, Texas, population 48,000. While outwardly affable and well-liked, it’s clear from the beginning of his narrative that he’s not all he seems. Lou is suffering from a ‘sickness’, a psychopathic disorder that has lain dormant for a number of years, and his carefully constructed identity as a good-natured and none-too-bright ‘rube’ is designed to render him invisible within mainstream society. When Lou’s ‘sickness’ is reactivated by a chance encounter with prostitute Joyce Lakeland, he’s soon drawn into a series of violent crimes, fuelled by a complex mixture of revenge for past wrongs, his love-hate relationship with a certain ‘type’ of woman, and, increasingly, self-preservation. As suspicions about Lou begin to surface within the community, the novel charts his increasingly desperate attempts to keep control of the unravelling situation and himself.
Thompson creates a powerful first-person narrative that admits the reader into a killer’s highly-disturbed mind, and deftly traces the complexities of its warped logic and self-deceptions. At the same time, the narrative provides a detailed and (for the time) remarkably daring analysis of the origins of Lou’s condition, asserting that nature and nurture have both played a role. The reader is even provided with a clinical diagnosis at the end of the novel, complete with a supporting quote from the work of German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, which reiterates this point. While not qualified to judge if the diagnosis offered is medically correct (it may well not be 60 years on), I found the narrative’s refusal to conform to the ‘mad and bad’ model one would expect from 1950s fiction extremely impressive, given the unenlightened attitudes to mental health issues prevalent at the time. One radical suggestion put forward by the novel is that labelling certain types of sexual practice as deviant or shameful won’t help to eliminate them from society, but will cause a severe and damaging backlash instead (the ‘return of the repressed’ writ large). Sexually conservative attitudes and social hypocrisy are figured as a partial cause of Lou’s condition and the behavioural choices he makes in adulthood – an amazingly bold critique to make of small-town America at any point, let alone in the early 1950s.
Thompson deals brilliantly with the challenge of managing the reader’s reactions to the narrator-as-murderer, creating just enough redeeming features to avoid a reductive, one-dimensional portrayal, whilst avoiding the pitfall of generating too much empathy for him or excusing his crimes. It’s an extraordinary authorial feat, one that a lesser writer would not pull off.
The novel was adapted for film in 2010 with Michael Winterbottom directing and Casey Affleck in the main role. It received mixed reviews and generated controversy due to its graphic depiction of violence towards women. I’ve not seen it yet, but can imagine adapting such a book would be hugely tricky, especially when so much of the narrative’s complexity is communicated via Ford’s distinctive first-person voice.
Clearly, The Killer Inside Me will not be everyone’s cup of tea, given its hard-hitting and explicit content. However, if you’re interested in the classics of the genre and haven’t read this novel yet, it could be one for you.
A biography of Jim Thompson is available here.
Mrs. Peabody awards The Killer Inside Me a highly thought-provoking 5 stars.
Great review Mrs P. I’ve not read the book but plan to as I have this on my list of books/films to consider for my book vs adaptation series.
Many thanks, Bernadette: I’d be very interested to see what you think of the novel and film (which I think will make for difficult viewing – will leave it a little while to allow recovery time from the book!).
Creepily fascinating. As you say, an interesting take on good/bad dichotomy standard for the time.
Yes, good description! One fascinating element of the narrative is the interaction between Lou and ‘respectable’ society around him. There are some individuals who are increasingly aware of Lou’s involvement, but who choose to remain in denial / deliberately turn a blind eye, for their own reasons. So society becomes culpable to some extent too.
I have seen the 2010 film adaptation. Casey Affleck is excellent as Lou Ford. I think he captured the affable on the outside, psycho killer inside dichotomy very well. The scene with the prostitute is hard to watch but the director stayed true to the book. Bernadette, The Killer Inside Me will make a great book vs. film.
Mrs P, if this has given you a taste for Jim Thompson then I recommend Pop. 1280. The Killer Inside Me was Thompson’s first major success and Pop. 1280 the last. In Nick Corey, the lawman in Pop. 1280 you will see much of Lou Ford, more subtly drawn but just as evil. I think it is one of the best noir novels you’ll read.
Thanks very much, Mack, for that feedback on the film. I take my hat off to the director and all the actors involved, because this is a risky film to be part of when you’re also part of the largely conservative Hollywood system (e.g. Scarlett Johannson in the role of Joyce). From the little reading I’ve done on the web, there was also an earlier adaptation (1976, see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074746/) with Stacy Keach in the lead role, alongside a number of other attempts, which collapsed due to problems with financing/the radical content. Affleck looks like perfect casting for the part; I’ll be very interested to see what he does with it.
There’s also been a recent comparison of Affleck’s role with that of Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe (another small town cop gone bad) – see this article in The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/jun/28/matthew-mcconaughey-killer-joe?newsfeed=true
Thanks too for the recommendation of Pop. 1280. Three people have now told me this is a standout novel – consider it added to my TBR pile!
There is a marvellous film adaptation of Pop 1280 by the way, French. I’m trying to remember who directed it – Isabelle Huppert and Philippe Noirot were in it. It may even have been Tavernier who directed.
Great review of The Killer Inside Me. I have read it (and other books by him) but can’t remember all that much about it. I don’t feel interested in seeing the film (or the new one, Killer Joe, which sounds so not my type of film – lots of gratuitious violence according to the approving review of Kate Muir in the Times, who always seems to like gratuitous violence). Leaving it to my imagination via the book is fine for me, though I’ll look forward to Bernadette’s comparison.
Maxine, It is Coup de Torchon, directed by Bertrand Tavernier. The action is transferred to French West Africa which works very well. I highly recommend it. The interview with Tavernier where he talks about film noir and Jim Thompson is worth the purchase of the DVD alone. Bernadette, here is another book vs film post for you.
Thanks, Maxine and Mack both – sounds like a film that’s well worth seeing, with an interesting transposition of locale.
I love these kinds of comment threads, which provide such a wealth of extra information on the topic in question. Most excellent!
That film sounds a must see. Thanks for the info.
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