Jim Thompson (writer)

From Academic Kids

Jim Thompson (September 27, 1906, Anadarko, Oklahoma Territory-April 7, 1977, Los Angeles, California) was an American writer of short stories, screenplays and novels of the pulp fiction kind.

Thompson was best-known for his novels. He wrote more than thirty, mostly between the late 1940s and mid 1950s, his most prolific period. Little recognized during his lifetime, Thompson's stature grew in the 1980s, stemming from the republication of his novels in the Black Lizard series of rediscovered crime fiction. He was an admirer of Fyodor Dostoevsky and was nicknamed "Dimestore Dostoevsky" by writer Geoffrey O'Brien.

Thompson's books are populated by grifters, losers and psychopaths, some on the fringes of society, some in the very heart of it. His nihilistic worldview was best served by first person narratives, revealing an almost frighteningly deep understanding of the workings of warped minds. There are practically no "good guys" in Thompson's works, nearly everyone is abusive, opportunistic, or simply biding their time.

Thompson's writing culminated in a few of his best-regarded works: The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, A Hell of a Woman and Pop. 1280. In these and other works, Thompson turned the often derided pulp genre into literature, into art. Some of his work features unreliable narrators, odd structures, and flirtations with surrealism.

His own life was nearly as colorful as his fiction, and much of Thompson's work was semi-autobiographical, or at least inspired by his own experiences.


Thompson's father was a county sheriff in Oklahoma. He ran for congress, but was defeated, and shortly thereafter, left the sheriff's office under a cloud due to embezzlement rumors. (The theme of a once-prominent family overtaken by ill-fortune would feature in some of Thompson's works.)

The Thompson family moved to Texas. Jim Thompson began writing early: A few short pieces were published in his mid-teens. He was intelligent and well-read, but had little interest in or inclination towards formal education.

In Fort Worth, Texas, Thompson worked as a bellboy at the Hotel Texas during prohibition. One biographical profile reports that "Thompson quickly adapted to the needs of the hotel's guests, busily catering to tastes ranging from questionable morality to directly and undeniably illegal." Bootleg alcohol was ubiquitous, and Thompson's brief trips to procure heroin and marijuana for hotel patrons were not uncommon.[1] (http://www.popsubculture.com/pop/bio_project/jim_thompson.html) He was soon making considerable sums of money with these extracurricular activities: Up to $300 weekly, far more than his modest $15 monthly wage.

For about two years Thompson worked long and often wild nights as a bellboy while attending school in the day. He was smoking and drinking heavily, and at nineteen he suffered a nervous breakdown.

In 1926, Thompson began working as an oil field laborer. With his father he began an independent oil drilling operation that was ultimately unsuccessful. Thomson returned to Fort Worth, intending to attend school, and to write professionally. 1929 saw the publication of Thompson’s “Oil Field Vignettes” under the pen name James Dillon. He attended the University of Nebraska beginning in the same year, as part of a program for gifted students with “untraditional educational backgrounds”.

Thompson married in 1931; the couple eloped due in part to his girlfriend Alberta’s family disapproving of Thompson. Their first child was born in 1932.

For several years Thompson wrote for various true crime magazines; primarily, he would rewrite actual murder cases culled from newspapers, but in a first person voice. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, after he had worked for the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project. (Louis L'Amour worked for the same writer’s project, one of several New Deal programs intended to aid American during the Great Depression.) By 1938, Thompson had left the Communist Party.

1942 saw the publication of Now And On Earth, Thompson’s first novel, a semi-autobiographical work inspired by Thompson’s stint working in an aircraft factory during the early stages of World War 2. The novel featured little of the violence and crime that would later permiate his writing. While working at the plant, Thompson was briefly investigated by the FBI due to his earlier Communist affiliation.

Heed The Thunder (1946) found Thompson steering towards crime; the novel details a warped and violent Nebraska family.

When these early novels generated little or no attention, Thompson finally gravitated towards the less prestigious but more commercial crime fiction genre. After the publication of his first hard-boiled novel, Nothing More Than Murder, he soon became one of the masters of the second generation of noir writers, as were named the writers that followed Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.

Thompson’s crime novels are fast-moving and compelling, but can sometimes seem a little sloppy: He wrote very quickly--many of his novels were written in about a month's time--and he utilized his experience as a newspaper writer, offering concise, evocative prose with rather little revision or editing.

Still, Thompson managed to pull off some unusual--and largely successful--literary tricks: Halfway though A Hell Of A Woman, for exampe, the first-person narrator, Frank "Dolly" Dillon suffers a breakdown, and the sides of his personality then take turns narrating chapters, alternately violently psychotic, telling the sordid tale that actually happened, or sweet-natured and patient, detailing an idealized fantasy of the events. In his original manuscript, Thompson brought the two sides of Dillon's personality together on the final page with two separate columns of text. The publisher disliked this, and instead alternated the two sections in one long paragraph, alternately in standard and italic printing. Thompson disliked this change, thinking it was confusing and difficult to read.

1952 saw the publication of The Killer Inside Me, arguably Thompson's finest and best-known novel. The narrator, Lou Ford, is a small-town sheriff. He seems amiable, pleasant and even a little dull-minded. In reality, though, Ford is very intelligent, and is fighting a nearly constant urge to erupt into violence. (The novel was adapted into a 1976 film by director Burt Kennedy, staring Stacy Keach as Ford.)

In 1955 Thompson moved to Hollywood and was commissioned by Stanley Kubrick to write the screenplay for his first studio-financed picture, The Killing. Although Thompson wrote the majority of the script, Kubrick insisted on keeping most of the credit to himself, leaving Thompson with a vague "additional dialogue" credit. The two collaborated again on Paths of Glory (which was also mostly written by Thompson, again with little credit), then parted ways.

Thompson remained in California for the rest of his life, drifting away from writing his increasingly unpopular novels and eventually to writing television programs and novelizations, anything to pay the bills.

In the early and mid 1970s Thompson's novels The Getaway and The Killer Inside Me were adapted to the big screen, both bowdlerized to fit genre conventions of the time. Thompson himself was initially hired to adapt The Getaway, but was subsequently fired by star Steve McQueen who deemed his style too depressing.

Thompson died after a series of strokes at age 71, aggrevated by his long-term alcoholism. He refused to eat for some time, and this self-inflicted starvation contributed greatly to his death. At the time of his death none of his novels were in print in his home country.

French director Bertrand Tavernier adapted Pop. 1280 for his 1981 film, Coup de Torchon, but it wasn't until 1989-1990, that Hollywood resumed interest in his writing. Three novels were adapted during that period - Kill-Off, After Dark, My Sweet and The Grifters, which garnered four Academy Award nominations.

Major works

External links


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