'So many people say that everything happens for a reason. I’ve always felt that things happen because the things before them happen, that’s all.'
- Alison Jean Lester, Lillian on Life

Books

The Killer Inside Me

Jim Thompson

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 04, 2015
Category: Mystery

THE THURSDAY REPUBLICAN DEBATE: A debate with enough candidates for a baseball team and Donald Trump at its center — break out the popcorn. Add context, and the entertainment value fades fast. As the writer for a long suppressed, finally available documentary about Trump (read about it and watch the preview here), I’m concerned by Trump’s traction with voters. Caroline Kennedy negotiates our trade deals with Japan? The cure for gun violence is for communities to tell cops about the “sick puppies” in their midst? Trump talks like he’s the smartest guy in any room, but he knows fuck all. If it’s all an act (alas, it isn’t), he’s like the alazôn in Greek drama, a character who claims to know more than he really does. Several readers, looking for cultural characters like Trump, suggest Lonesome Rhodes in “A Face in the Crowd.” Good idea, but too on-the-nose. So I thought about that character’s opposite, the eirôn, who often wins by pretending to know less than he really does. Which led me to the greatest eirôn in modern fiction: Lou Ford, the deputy sheriff of a small Texas town in Jim Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me.” He talks in cliches; he really is the smartest guy in the room. But he’s a killer. And insane. So this appalling novel is my counter-intuitive pick as my debate prep. Because madness takes many forms…
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The first time I read this book, I wasn’t right for days.

This is not an uncommon experience.

The killer is Lou Ford, deputy sheriff of Central City, Texas (population: 48,000).

He’s a sociopath.

He knows it.

And… he’s the narrator.

How twisted is Lou? This book leaves Silence of the Lambs in the dust. Blame it on the sex — the violent sex and the violence after sex. Hannibal Lecter may kill, but he’s cool and scientific about it, and because “Silence” has a third-person narrator with some restraint, we don’t see him eating someone’s liver and fava beans as he drinks a nice Chianti.

But because Lou Ford is our tour guide, we see his murders from inches away. Relatively speaking, it’s no big deal when he kills a man. It’s what Lou does to women that’s truly sickening: overwhelming them, beating them, punishing them, humiliating them. We’re chained to his point-of-view, so his sick, violent misogyny involves and implicates us. And, possibly, worse: turns us on in sick places we never knew we had.

Critics sometimes defend books like this on the grounds that they are “moral” tales. And the novel does scream that Lou Ford isn’t just sick, he’s evil. Stanley Kubrick, a film director who knew a thing or three about evil, called this “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.” That’s because Jim Thompson, who also wrote “The Grifters” and “The Getaway,” had no problem looking into the darkest reaches of the human soul and mirthlessly presenting what he found — that is, violence, corruption and nihilism.

Thompson knocked off “The Killer Inside Me” in just four weeks. Published in 1952, it was a shocker, and not just because of the violence and the sex. The character himself is disturbing. Lou Ford is the kind of dullard you do anything to avoid — he spouts the most inane cliches, he’s Mr. Hearty to one and all, he’s so damn friendly and boring he drives everybody crazy. What nobody gets: He’s really a kind of genius who acts like a dope on purpose. All to keep them from guessing that, when no one is looking, he’s a serial killer who’s kinky as hell. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

And then there’s the writing, which is as blunt as the brutality it describes. Like this:

She still didn’t get it. She laughed, frowning a little at the same time.
“But Lou — that doesn’t make sense. How could I be dead when…?”   
“Easy,” I said. And I gave her a slap. And still she didn’t get it.
She put a hand to her hand to her face and rubbed it slowly.
“Y-you’d better not do that, now, Lou. I’ve got to travel, and —”
“You’re not going anywhere, baby,” I said, and I hit her again.
And then she got it.

Why read such horrifying, disgusting stuff? Precisely because it’s so acutely rendered — no writer creates psychopaths more compelling than Jim Thompson. And no writer I can think of can put you inside a sicko’s head as totally as Thompson. You may not like what he has to say, but you have to admire his ability to say it.

This book gives new definition to the phrase “guilty pleasure.” Just make sure you don’t have to be anywhere after you start reading it — if you don’t put it down out of squeamishness, you’re not going to be able to tear yourself away from “The Killer Inside Me.”

Short takes

Josh Ritter: “If you want to see a miracle, watch me get down.”

New song. New CD coming. Counting the days.

The movie to see: “Mr. Holmes”

It’s 1947. Sherlock Holmes is 93, living in Sussex. He’s not retired, not waiting for death; he’s haunted by his last case, 50 years ago. So much past, so much age — this is not an action movie, yet I was transfixed. I could hype “Mr. Holmes” by saying that Sir Ian McKellen gives a performance that should get him an Oscar nomination, but that’s too small a lens. McKellen gives a master class in acting, in aging, in being a mind fighting off emotion. This level of performance sends you home drained, wet-eyed and grateful.

A ghost speaks… softly

When Bill Novak writes a book with a major celebrity, you know about it — he’s the king of ghosts. Sometimes, though, he writes books you never hear about. Private books. In the Times, he tells all.