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.