Nearly seventy years after publication this novel still has thousands of rads of gamma radiation coming off it. No one is going to say ‘Killer’ is a fun read but, by God, it’s powerful. And disturbing. This reader found two main reasons to keep reading: the very modern psychological realism of what author Jim Thompson does (there is more insight here than in an entire library of psychology textbooks) and the readerly desire to see Sheriff Lou Ford get his just desserts, preferably involving a stake through the heart. Your copy may have the Stanley Kubrick quote on the front and if so you should consider it due warning that if such a work gave the director of ‘The Shining’ the willies you’re about to take a trip through a very dark forest. Lou Ford’s mind makes the Overlook Hotel look like the Pontefract Travelodge.
This novel is a walk through the mind of a despicable piece of filth led by a writer with awesome control and craftsmanship and if you dip into Robert Polito’s Savage Art you’ll quickly learn Thompson had real-world experience of menacing sheriffs and other degenerate authority figures to draw upon. Plus his journo buddies said when he was sober he was one heck of a writer, so there’s that. The plot involves a local good ol’ boy Sheriff Lou Ford falling into a sadomasochistic relationship with a prostitute, cooking up a get-rich-quick scheme and then double-crossing her, mainly to get back at the man who he blames for his brother’s death. So far, so conventional for the genre but Lou Ford is a rum sort. He likes to purposefully button-hole ordinary types and deliberately bore the pants off them. Failing that, a cigarette burn will do. His idea of comfort reading is morbid psychology and medical textbooks. He’s intelligent, charming, an expert manipulator, a lover of carb-heavy meals, fond of shooting himself with male hormones in lieu of Viagra and talks of ‘the sickness’. He offers to marry his long-term girlfriend Amy Stanton just to shut up her up then tries to wriggle out of it by plotting to kill her. The murder for which his brother takes the rap on his behalf was heinous in 1952 and remains so in 2018, being potentially a barrier to entry for readers with young children and what eventually happens to Amy Stanton, announced heart-stoppingly at the start of chapter 18, had this reader gagging for Ford’s comeuppance. It’s a piece of work that takes 120 pages to do what the TV show ‘Dexter’ tried to do in 96 episodes and it provoked a right old storm when Michael Winterbottom dared to put it all on screen, sick-making violence and all.
The trick is in giving Lou Ford the floor, letting his voice reign supreme, because the man can’t shut up (“I'll tell you everything”) and convicts himself from the earliest pages, with the reader cast as impotent, horror-struck, bystander. Ford’s first-person narration, his sentimentality (“My feelings were hurt”), his intellectual arrogance (“I don't know why he hadn't used hyoscin like any damned fool should have”), his misanthropy and games playing are all depicted in pin-sharp clarity. Thompson really pins the bastard to the dissecting table and you get the sense the author is standing in the corner with his arms folded watching calmly as Ford thrashes around entrapping himself. Thompson eventually fields pathological and developmental reasons for Ford’s behaviour which may or may not convince the reader depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing but which definitely feels in tune with the modern crime novel with its background police sources and cleave to realism. Thompson certainly isn’t beholden to realism (‘The Getaway’ voyages into outright surrealism in places) but ‘Killer’ definitely feels like new seams of insight were being opened up for exploration.
Eventually, the townspeople twig Ford is a bullshit merchant of epic proportions and one of Ford’s colleagues is so riven with remorse he shoots himself. There are still good people in Thompson’s fiction. The novel ends (“All of us”) with Ford claiming solidarity with some supposed cadre of similarly put-upon outlaws and losers which is the standard self-aggrandising bollocks from narcissistic egomaniacs but the reveals (here, as in ‘The Getaway’, characters refusing to die complicate matters most enjoyably), the parodically romantic hook in the opening chapter (“The way I'd fought to forget—and had almost forgot—until I met her”), the deathly black humour (“Why'd they all have to come to me to get killed? Why couldn't they kill themselves?”) all demonstrate who is actually in control throughout. In Jim Thompson Lou Ford meets his match and he loses in straight sets. ‘The Killer Inside Me’ is chilling but it’s also a complete demolition, not remotely sensationalistic, profoundly serious and, as we now know, highly influential, right into the digital age. “What a good man is Deputy Lou Ford.”