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The Killer Inside Me

Jim Thompson

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jun 06, 2010
Category: Mystery

The first time I read this book, I wasn’t right for days.

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.

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.”