Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jim Thompson & Backlash, as per usual

In the late ‘80’s, everyone kinda fell in love with Jim Thompson. A good twenty years too late to do the guy any good, but what the hell… better late than never, they say. Thanks to Barry Gifford and his fantastic Black Lizard imprint, a slew of new fans materialized and gobbled up every bit of Thompson they could find.

In fact, the revival of interest in Jim Thompson’s brand of psychotic crime thriller played a huge role in exposing other under-rated writers from that era to new readers, and was probably more responsible than any other single event for the resurgence of interest in noir in general. Readers started to realize how truly amazing and talented those so-called paperback hacks really were, and the fifties and early sixties were finally deemed the Second Golden Age of Hardboiled and Noir.

But then the inevitable happened. The backlash against Jim Thompson began taking root. Mostly among critics, of course, who seemed to take great pleasure in pointing out Thompson’s deficiencies as a writer.

“He wasn’t really that good,” they began saying.

“Vastly over-rated.”

“A lot of his contemporaries were much, much better than he was.”

“You know what? Thompson actually sucked.”

Pretty harsh words for a guy who practically invented psycho-noir.

Okay, being honest: Not everything Thompson wrote was solid. And yeah, some of it is actually… not good at all. We only know that because, once Thompson’s GOOD books started selling, publishers couldn’t wait to publish every damn thing the man wrote.

Books like “King Blood” or “The Transgressors” are admittedly weak, which is only worth mentioning because some of the “contemporaries” the critics mention were FAR more consistent. You could always count on, say Gil Brewer, to turn in a solid piece of writing. You always knew that Charles Williams wouldn’t let you down, or Harry Whittington, or Day Keene. These guys were dependable. They were pros.

But our man Jim, well… he didn’t function in the same professional way. When his back was against the wall and he HAD to turn in a book post-haste, he would often produce sub-par work.

But here’s the rub: When Thompson was ON… man, when he was ON… no one could touch him. His best books make the other fellas seem tame and predictable by comparison.

No one could wallow around in the emotional filth the way Thompson could. No one had the balls to go to those darkest of places, and without a doubt no one had the stamina to drag it all up from Hell and show it to the world.

Novels like “Pop. 1280”, “The Killer Inside Me”, “The Grifters”, "The Getaway" and “A Hell of a Woman” are more than just brilliant crime novels. They’re more than just noir. They are unflinching, deeply honest (and sometimes deeply, darkly funny) revelations.
Thompson was bold beyond belief, a writer with absolutely no fear. And that’s why readers STILL respond to him.

So for the critics who say Thompson wasn’t a great writer, okay, sure, maybe. He wasn’t great. He was brilliant.


  1. Damn straight. I've only read The Getaway and The Killer Inside Me, but both are incredible books--larger than life characters, filled with action and heart.

  2. He wrote some damn fine books that are sitting on my shelf.

  3. Thompson's legacy has a flat at the intersection of brilliance and alcoholism.

  4. I had no idea about Jim Thompson. Seen his name flying around, but never really paid attention.

  5. I couldn't agree more Heath. Jim Thompson's best works were outstanding & still vastly underrated by alot of young folks today. Great story.