The Killer Is Inside Him
"As far as he was concerned, the world was a shit pot with a barbed-wire handle and the further he could kick it, the better."
James Myers Thompson
was born on September 27th, 1906 in
where his father, James Sherman Thompson, lived as the sheriff of Caddo county. His father ran for Congress in 1906, but was resoundingly defeated, according to the explanation given in both
the landslide defeat rested almost exclusively on the shoulders of the campaign manager who had the candidate's full name, James Sherman Thompson painted on banners across three train cars. According to Thompson, the band chose that moment to strike up the popular tune "Marching Through Georgia". In
friendly Oklahoma, the connection could not be missed, and Thompson's father was never considered for public office again. Particularly because shortly thereafter, some "accounting irregularities" were discovered in the sheriff's office, amounting to some $31,000, a healthy supplement to the $1,500 he earned through wages during the same period.
The Thompson family moved to
on the back of a million dollar oil fortune which his father quickly squandered and lost.
In his thinly veiled autobiographical novel
Bad Boy, Thompson highlights some of his more "interesting" childhood experiences, including several
surreptitious excursions with his grandfather to burlesque shows in
at age thirteen. His grandfather also insisted that Thompson learn to smoke cigars and drink whiskey, part of what his grandfather felt were necessary steps to manhood.
He began writing at a young age, and managed even to get several things published by the age of fourteen, mostly jokes and short sketches to magazines such as
It was in
however, that Thompson began working the night shift as a bellhop in the large Hotel Texas. His experiences in the hotel can be found recounted in a variety of his novels, such as
Now and On Earth,
Texas By the Tail,
Full of corruption, vice and graft, yet nonetheless an elegant hotel, the Hotel Texas which Thompson describes as
"a city unto itself",
has housed such famous guests as John F Kennedy
,who stayed in Suite 850 on the night of November 21, 1963. It stands to this day, now the Fort Worth Hyatt Regency.
Thompson quickly adapted to the needs of the hotel's guests, busily catering to tastes ranging from questionable morality to directly and undeniably illegal. Thompson's profits from these activities quickly outpaced his hotel salary, to the point where it was more profitable to bribe the bell captain to not assign him any actual arriving guests, such was his reputation for being able to produce a bottle of whiskey (mind you, it was the
at any time of day or night. For those guests whose tastes ranged a bit more exotic, Thompson would
"....dip down into the Mexican Quarter.... for grass, coke, or heroin."
Thompson's $15 a month bellhop salary was hardly noticeable, as at times he pulled in as much as $300 per week from tips, gambling profits and various scams. It was during this period that he earned the nickname "Dolly", due to his predilection for expensive, fashionable clothing, imported shoes, and the like.
Thompson was not overly fond of school, and his work schedule began to take a toll on him. He was a talented student, however, like many intelligent self-taught people, he saw little use for completing assignments and other monotonous rigors of the high school curriculum.
After 2 years of working all night, attending high school by day, smoking 60 cigarettes a day, and untold pints of whiskey, Thompson suffered a "nervous collapse." He was 19. It took him nearly a year to recover.
Thompson left Fort Worth in the Spring of 1926 and began working in the oil fields, working jobs ranging from laying pipe to reclaiming timber from abandoned oil derricks. His mother joined him for a short while, helping him run a cook shack for several months. Later, Thompson's father would join him in the oil fields, where they started a wildcat drilling operation under the name Thompson and Son, all financed by Thompson's earnings. After a series of hard luck failures, they decided the company was a failure, and as Thompson writes in
Texas By the Tail,
"The kid announced that he had gone his limit; He had nothing left but his ass and his pants, and they both had holes in them...."
It was in the oil fields that Thompson met 'Haywire' Mac, who is memorialized as the character Strawlegs Martin in his novel
Haywire is singularly responsible for convincing Thompson to return to Dallas and continue his education, as well as seriously pursue writing at this point.
Thompson returns to Dallas, and resumes his position at the Hotel Texas, this time, however, he has to pay a bribe of over a hundred dollars to get his job, such was the money that was being earned there.
In 1929, Texas Monthly
published Thompson's first "serious writing", a series of sketches called "Oil Field Vignettes" under the alias James Dillon. According to Thompson,
"...one evening while I was killing time in the library, I picked up a copy of the Texas monthly. And there on the title page was a line "Oil Field Vignettes... By James Dillon." I had written that story almost a year before, one bitter night down on the Pecos- written it by lantern-light with the sleet beating down on the nickel tablet and my hand swathed in mittens. And I had sent it to town with the provision truck and promptly forgotten about it.
I called the editor and we spent a whole afternoon talking- it was that kind of magazine. He couldn't pay me in money, but he had a lot of advice to offer, chiefly to the effect that I had better get myself some schooling."
It was through the editor of the magazine, Peter Molyneaux that Thompson learned of and was accepted into a collegiate program through the University of Nebraska that was designed for gifted students with untraditional educational backgrounds.
At the University of Nebraska, Thompson joined the College of Agriculture, partly influenced by the boys in the Ag fraternity, which he joined, in part to gain the supposed secure and practical future career as an agricultural writer.
For the Fall semester of 1931, Thompson only managed to pay his tuition by borrowing thirty dollars from one of his professors. However the
ran interference to those plans, and October 1st, 1931 marked the end of his formal education.
Thompson married Alberta on September 16th, 1931. In fact they eloped by driving across the border to Marysville, Kansas. After the wedding, according to
"We went out and had an ice cream sundae. Then we drove back to Lincoln,where they were having a fall fashion show. Later that night we saw a
An American Tragedy
Then I went home, and he went to his home..."
The reasoning behind this was two-fold. First off, they (correctly) feared parental opposition to the marriage, and secondly, they wished to keep the marriage secret because the telephone company where Alberta wished to continue working maintained a strict no married women policy.
Thompson's mother-in-law would never really accept him, not considering him good enough for Alberta who had been previously engaged to a doctor and a lawyer.
By April 6th, 1932, when the Thompsons renewed their vows in a Catholic church, they were already expecting their first child.
Thompson made ends meet for a few years by writing pieces for true crime magazines, even going to the point of posing as victims, criminals, and investigative detectives for the photo illustrations. His wife and sister would comb the newspaper archives, looking for murders, which Thompson would then rewrite into a popular set of first-person view point articles. It was here that Thompson cut his teeth and honed his sinister style. At the height of their popularity, in the 1930's, these magazines (with titles like
Master Detective, and
Intimate Detective) paid very, very well, $250 for a 6000 word article, the exact rate they now offer in the 1990's.
Around 1935, Thompson joined the Communist party,
a decision he explains in his first published novel,
Now and On Earth,
as being attracted to the
and being "pretty disgusted with the old-line parties."
Thompson's first contact with communists was through the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project, a part of the Federal relief project which aided writers during the Depression. Several other regional writers were on this project, perhaps most notably,
famed Western writer. He quickly became an important asset to the Project, and eventually became an editor of an Oklahoma car travel guide book that the Project was compiling, consisting of intra-state road tours, city-by-city guides, and the compilation of Oklahoma region folklore. Joining the Communist party was not terribly unusual, keeping in mind that this was the height of the Depression, and in states like Oklahoma, the American Communist Party began to bend a sympathetic ear.
He had left the Communist Party by 1938
Thompson got his first novel,
Now and On Earth
published in 1942. Largely autobiographical, it lacks much of the 'crime' element that would Thompson would later become famous for,
focusing largely on a fictionalized account of his work in an aircraft factory during
as well as his chaotic home life. In it as well, is an account of Thompson's
interview while working at the plant, investigating the possibility that Thompson's political affiliations had led him to become a saboteur. The accusations were of course, nonsense, and Thompson was left to carry on working there.
In his second novel,
Heed the Thunder,
(published in 1946) Thompson spins an American Gothic tale of a small farming community in Nebraska dominated by 4 generations of a clan to be reckoned with, the Fargos. Thompson probes every darkened corner of the soul in this novel, and anyone who thinks that 'nothing' ever happens in a small town needs to read this dark, diffuse tale, and be sure to check under your bed frequently while reading it.
Between novels, Thompson supported the family by working for various newspapers, including the
San Diego Journal
Los Angeles Mirror.
He left the
in 1949, on the date coinciding with the publication of his third novel,
Nothing More Than Murder,
his first 'crime' novel. It is in this novel that we first glimpse Thompson's elegant mastery of the noir style.
Thompson began writing for various men's magazines, eventually became the managing editor of SAGA, which "shunned" the nude pictorials and sexual fantasies offered in magazines such as
(which perhaps explains SAGA's eventual failure). However, Thompson's politics ran aground with management when an effort was made to form a union, and Thompson left. Having failed to get any publishers interested in his latest manuscript,
The Golden Gizmo,
Thompson, accepted a position as Managing Editor of the
which he later describes as
"about as low down as you can get."
Luckily his agent discovered that
was looking for "paperback originals" to publish. Two weeks later, the opening chapters of
The Killer Inside Me
were on the editor's desk.
Thompson's decision to move to
was in part, inspired by his exposure to the film house that his family unsuccessfully ran during the Depression. In 1955, Thompson got his break and was afforded the opportunity to work with
on the screenplay for the 1956 film
No one was more surprised than Thompson when the screen credits scrolled and he was given credit for "additional dialogue". The dispute was arbitrated by the Writer's Guild, a complicated affair, particularly since Thompson was not then a guild member. He eventually lost the
judgment, but was offered another chance to work with Kubrick, this time on the 1957 film
Paths of Glory which later garnered a Writer's Guild nomination for best screenplay. Again, despite specific clauses in his contract regarding the credits, Thompson was billed third, behind Kubrick himself and another writer,
Calder Willingham. Even to this day, Kubrick and his representatives refuse to discuss the circumstances of the dispute.
In Thompson's later career, he found himself a writer screenplays for a variety of second rate 60's television programs, mainly Westerns. He also paid bills by writing novelizations of a few programs, most notably
Thompson suffered his first stroke in the early 1960's, but eventually was able to resume writing, though the quality began to suffer. Shortly after his return home, suffering from vision loss and other stroke related complications, he pounded out a manuscript and promptly sent it to his agent. His agent eventually returned it, unable to make heads or tails of it.
Jim Thompson died April 7th, 1977 in Hollywood, California, following a series of strokes. According to family members, Thompson, frustrated, unable to speak or write, finally just quit eating.
In part, due to a misprint in his obituary, only family members and a very small number of close personal friends were at his funeral service. One of his friends later commented that the poorly attended memorial service was "the perfect ending to another Jim Thompson story."
Shortly before Thompson died, he urged his wife to keep his manuscripts safe, saying:
"Just you wait, I'll become famous after I'm dead about ten years."
the author of such modern noir tales as
Wild At Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula
(adapted into a
(adapted into the graphic novel
Neon-Lit: Perdita Durango),Wild Life of Sailor and Lulaand most recently (May 1998),
started the publishing house
Black Lizard Press
and reprinted Thompson's
Hell of a Woman,
He continued successfully reprinting Thompson's books for the next three years, until
purchased the company, and they have continued the Black Lizard imprint under the aegis of
To date, nearly all of Thompson's previously published novels are in print, thanks to the Black Lizard/Vintage Crime imprint.
In 1975, Thompson appeared as Mr. Grayle in the film
adaptation of the
Farewell, My Lovely.
Current Internet Movie Database link to all films based on Jim Thompson material.
Author: Patrick Deese