This is not an uncommon experience. The novel is narrated by the main character, Lou Ford, deputy sheriff of Central City, Texas (population: 48,000). His is is a twisted tale, told by a sociopath from his point of view.
How twisted? 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.
Now “The Killer Inside Me” is a film, starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson. A controversial film --- ever since it made its debut at Sundance, critics have debated whether the sustained, close-up violence against women is necessary. One argument has it that Lou’s depravity didn’t have to be so specific, that this is an arty snuff film. The other is that the logic of the story commits us to witness and experience the full horror of this lawman-killer.
I haven’t seen the film. I’ve read the book three or four times, each time amazed at Jim Thompson’s accomplishment in these 240 pages. My purpose in writing about “The Killer Inside Me” is not to take a position on the film, but to urge you to read the book before you see it --- the movie you make in your head as you read may be more important to you than the movie itself.
In the preview for the film, you get a sense of Lou’s sickness, but not his violence. Take a look:
But that’s the official trailer, bland enough to pass YouTube standards. For a much raunchier --- and far more violent --- preview that’s not-safe-for-any-work environment (unless you’re self-employed), click here.
See what I mean? It's shocking. And not because it’s rough sex --- between consensual adults, I’m told, this kind of sex is more theatrical than dangerous. What’s shocking is that, minutes into the scene, Lou Ford beats the prostitute, and that causes her to fall in love with him. I think not. On the other hand, mine may be a narrow, middle-class take on human weirdness. Decades ago, a friend was raped, and when the rapist finished with her, he said, “I could help you,” and, for the next year, they had a torrid romance. Do you know what to make of that? After all these years, I still don’t.
We have seen so much death in the news, in movies and in games that it’s hard to say where the line of acceptability is and what a director has to do to cross it. Terrorists kill three hundred people on a plane in “Die Hard” just so Bruce Willis can have a crime to avenge. On HBO, vampires are now sexy. Many parents seem to have no problems with video games that simulate murder. “The Killer Inside Me” may well be exploitation; it could also be a wake-up call.
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.
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.”