James Myers ‘Jim’ Thompson (1906 – 1977) was an outrageously talented novelist, screenwriter – and drunk. When he died in Los Angeles of an alcohol-induced stroke he left a legacy of hard hitting crime novels and brilliant screenplays, perhaps none better than that for Paths Of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film set in the French trenches of The Great War. With a dazzling performance by Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, the film has become a classic.
Thompson’s first major success came in 1952 with The Killer Inside Me and it remains grimly innovative. Psychopathic killers have become pretty much mainstream in contemporary crime fiction, but there can be few who chill the blood in quite the same way as Thompson’s West Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. His menace is all the more compelling because he is the narrator of the novel, and a few hundred words in we are left in no doubt that the dull but amiable law officer, who bores local people stupid with his homespun cod-philosophical clichés, is actually a creature from the darkest reaches of hell.
Ford has homicidal urges which he refers to as the sickness. They date from childhood, and we learn that he was used for sex by his father’s housekeeper and went on to murder a girl – a crime for which his foster brother took the blame. Ford’s downfall begins with a visit to a beaten up house, outside the city limits; the resident of the house, Joyce Lakeland, is a prostitute, and Sheriff Bob Maples has given his amiable deputy – renowned for not carrying a gun, and being able to sweet-talk his way out of difficult situations – the task of telling her to move on.
Joyce is savvy, and world-weary, but when Ford’s “pardon me, Ma’am,” charm strikes the wrong note, she slaps him. He slaps her back and the encounter takes a dark turn when Ford takes off his belt and gives Joyce what used to be known as “a leathering.” She responds to the beating with obvious arousal, and the pair begin a violent sado-sexual affair.
Ford’s involvement with Joyce becomes complicated when he is summoned by Chester Conway, the major employer in the city. Conway’s feckless son Elmer is one of Joyce’s paying customers and Conway senior wants Ford to engineer a meeting where Elmer is to give Joyce a large sum of money on the understanding that she leaves immediately. Ford twists the situation to his own advantage by giving Joyce a near fatal beating, shooting Elmer and setting up the scene to look as if there has been a violent quarrel which has left both participants dead.
His plan seems to have worked, but seeds of doubt have been sown in the minds of some of Ford’s associates, including Joe Rothman, a sceptical union official, and also Bob Maples, who is old, ill and drinking himself away from thoughts that his deputy may be a murderer.
A key figure in Ford’s life is Amy, his long-time girlfriend. Thompson paints her as physically attractive, but socially constrained. She is a primary school teacher from a good local family who, despite responding to Ford’s violent sexual ways, is determined to marry him. As the dark clouds of suspicion begin to shut the daylight out of Lou Ford’s life, she is the next to die, and Ford’s clumsy attempt to frame someone else for her death is the tipping point. Thereafter his downfall is rapid, and his final moments are as brutal and savage as anything he has inflicted on other people.
We live in a different world now. While violence against women is pretty much standard fare in the scores of serial killer novels which are published every year, The Killer Inside Me is different. Nowadays, if a book is classed (by whom, one could ask) as a literary novel, then almost anything goes. American Psycho attracted all kinds of labels; it was satirical, it was post-modern, it was transgressive, it was New York chic. Firmly rooted in the crime fiction genre, I Was Dora Suarez was horrifically violent, but shot through with author Derek Raymond’s overwhelming compassion and pity. Could, would, should The Killer Inside Me be written and published in 2020? I doubt that a mainstream publisher would handle it, and I am certain that critics would kill it dead, leading to social media vultures hovering over the remains.
For an account of the two movie adaptations of
The Killer Inside Me, click the image below