“The goats always won”

Savage Night - Jim Thompson

Charles Bigger, a five foot gangland killer who offed his own brother and disappeared without a conviction, is contacted by “the Man” to retire one Jake Winroy, a witness about to testify about some important people. People and events do not play ball and our friendly neighbourhood killer is coming apart at the seams, physically and mentally.    

 

As with Thompson’s “The Getaway” this has a sick, dream-like feel to it and voyages into outright surrealism at the end to depict a man at the end of his tether. Killer Charlie’s insertion into wholesome ordinariness lends the narrative a nicely unsettling parodic quality. Everyone – almost everyone – buys Charlie’s nice guy routine, particularly since he comes with glowing personal references to bolster his cover, so the first turn of the novel is when he starts throwing snark around and confiding his actual thoughts to the reader (“Somehow I managed to keep from punching the stupid bastard in the face”). His toxicity is not, however, bullet-proof and among his many blunders the sentimental twonk falls for house-help Ruth, hobbling around on crutches and telling him she knows he’s a nice guy really. This nice guy is someone who drops lit matches onto a woman’s naked breasts to make a point. Charlie gets in with the Sheriff Summers and his wife, accompanying them to Church (where he comes up with his murderous plan), gets mentored and offered a job by fellow house boarder Kendall, almost gets framed by the drunken Jake Winroy, almost frozen to death locked in a cold store and puts away the booze like it’s going out of fashion. This is the good life lived by a liar who can’t quite live with himself.   

 

Thompson’s work feels personal. “Savage Night” is a simulacrum for a dodgy type play-acting at life while secretly plotting murders and nausing up multiple opportunities for happiness and love. Not a million miles away from Thompson’s own turbulent life, one feels. There is hard-won wisdom regarding drink (“You take just so much from the bottle, and then you stop taking. From then on you’re putting”), I doubt Ruth’s biblical name was accidental and with Charlie coughing up blood and Fay Winroy suggesting “Let’s kill him now and get it over with” there are Shakespearean nods if you want to find them. Thompson was no hack and his death-bed prediction of posthumous acclaim is all the more on point in 2019 where Yorgos Lanthimos is looking to follow up “The Favourite” with an adaptation of Thompson’s “Pop.1280”. The feeling seems to be if Thompson was good enough for Stanley Kubrick he’s certainly good enough for a film-maker looking for a low-budget character piece with noir trappings and the opportunity for some arty surrealism at the end. It’s just a pity Thompson never got to enjoy some of that acclaim in his lifetime but then again “it seemed like I’d always been living on the ragged edge.”