The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
In lots of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He’ll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babble about stars flashing and sinking into a deep dreamless sea. And you can’t figure out whether the hero’s laying his girl or a cornerstone. I guess that kind of crap is supposed to be pretty deep stuff – a lot of the book reviewers eat it up, I notice. But the way I see it is, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his job. And I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything. (TKIM p161)
And tell you he does. Thompson’s relentless first person perspective forces us into a deadly proximity with his ‘hero’, Lou Ford, a small-town deputy sheriff with justice – and its dispensation – very much on his mind.
If Lou sees himself as lawgiver, the man he has cast as recipient is Chester Conway, local bigshot and all-purpose asshole, a man who, Ford informs us, is an each-man-for-himself kind of guy and no matter the cost:
Conway had been the big man in town before the oil boom. He’d always been able to deal with others on his own terms. He’d gone without opposition for so many years that, by this time, he hardly knew it when he saw it. I believe I could have cussed him out in church and he wouldn’t have turned a hair. He’d just have figured his ears were playing tricks on him.
It had never been hard for me to believe he’d arranged [my brother’s] murder. The fact that he did it would automatically make it all right. (TKIM pp 33-4)
The time has come for a reckoning, and Lou has a plan. It goes wrong almost from the start, and Lou finds himself having to take ever more brutal steps to cover his tracks. By the time we reach the end, Central City’s population statistics will need to be adjusted, and Lou? Well, he’s not one for easy apologies, either:
Just because I’d been around when a few people got killed. Just because I happened to be around… (TKIM p175)
This novel’s reputation is already assured, and not without reason. It’s tautly written, smart, tense, economical as they come and with moments of genuine horror. Thompson’s language showcases the very best of the pulp/noir tradition. You won’t find any extraneous detail here, no dwelling on weather or landscape or family history. But there’s real poetry in these pages, an instinctive feel for the rhythms of speech and thought that would put many more verbose writers in the shade. Thompson’s talent – and Ford’s, I guess – is to tell it how it is, and with no words wasted.
Nor is Lou Ford any kind of ordinary psycho. He’s an intelligent, canny, thinking man, a man who reads and observes and understands human motivations and behaviour on an intellectual as well as a gut level. It ain’t his fault he’s got the sickness now, is it? If I have any criticism at all of The Killer Inside Me, it’s that Ford’s true nature is revealed too early. His murderous assault on Joyce Lakeland is so appalling, so totally beyond the pale, that it’s impossible – at least for this reader – to ever feel the empathy for him that Thompson is clearly tempting us towards. I can see Thompson’s reasoning – he doesn’t want to trick us, he wants us to know that Lou is a killer and still go along for the ride, and it’s very nicely done – but I think for me the book might have worked even better if he’d held off just a little longer.