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Thompson, Jimlocked

(27 September 1906–07 April 1977)
  • Leonard Cassuto

Thompson, Jim (27 September 1906–07 April 1977), writer, was born James Myers Thompson in Anadarko, Oklahoma Territory, the son of James S. Thompson, a county sheriff, and Birdie Myers Thompson. Jim Thompson grew up in rural poverty in Nebraska and Texas. He began drinking as a teenager, a prelude to a life of alcoholism.

Thompson's unsettled childhood gave way to an itinerant adulthood. He moved every few years, not stopping in one place until he was in his fifties. He began full-time work as a hotel bellboy during high school; in 1926 he moved to West Texas and worked in the oil fields. In 1929 Thompson enrolled briefly at the University of Nebraska, where he wrote sketches, poems, and stories, some of them crime stories, which he published in the pulp magazines. Thompson married Alberta Hesse in 1931. They had three children.

In 1936 Thompson joined the Oklahoma Federal Writers project, a formative tie that fostered in the young writer an idealism firmly based in the New Deal. So powerful was Thompson's identification with this form of state-sponsored artistic support, argues Sean McCann in Gumshoe America (2000), that his later crime fiction may be read as “a lament for the state leadership and civic purpose that [he] associated with the WPA” (McCann, p. 218). Thompson rose to the directorship of the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project in 1938, but he quit the next year in a dispute over his far left–leaning politics. At that point he turned to writing full-time with the support of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, beginning an oral history of the labor movement in the southwestern building trade. Unable to produce a manuscript acceptable to his publisher, Thompson in 1940 moved to San Diego, California, and worked in the aeronautics industry, which provided the setting of his first published novel, Now and on Earth (1942). In 1946 Thompson published an autobiographically based proletarian novel, Heed the Thunder. Neither book sold well. Thompson became a journalist in 1947, working for the San Diego Journal.

In 1949 Thompson turned to the crime fiction for which he is remembered. His first crime novel, Nothing More Than Murder, challenges conventional notions of guilt and innocence while showcasing a scabrous commentary on the cutthroat rural film distribution industry, where large corporate combines overwhelm smaller, more personal operations. The story is narrated by the criminal, a device that became a virtual Thompson signature. He wrote no detective stories, preferring to inhabit the twisted minds of the transgressors rather than those of the straight-and-narrow thinkers who try to bring them to justice. Though publication of this novel was followed by a period during which Thompson worked as an editor at Saga magazine in New York City, this foray into crime writing eventually led Thompson to one of the most productive periods enjoyed by any American writer.

Between 1952 and 1954 Thompson blazed through a series of eleven brilliant crime novels (plus two autobiographies), writing them so fast that he created a backlog at his publisher. (So rapidly did Thompson produce these books that it is impossible to determine the order in which he composed them.) Thompson's books were issued as paperback originals, mostly by Lion Books. They regularly sold in excess of 200,000 copies, but they brought Thompson little glory and little money. Despite receiving respectful reviews, Thompson was unable to consolidate a reputation as a serious writer in a literary marketplace that was dividing itself between high-toned literary works of deliberately limited appeal and paperbacks aimed at the mass market.

Ironically, Thompson found himself slotted in the mass-market category on the strength of some of the most demanding books in the annals of crime fiction. Though the genre is guided by a highly restrictive set of conventions, Thompson stretched crime fiction to its formal limits. His narrators are notoriously unreliable—sometimes insane, sometimes dead, sometimes both—and his endings usually raise more questions than they answer. Perhaps because of his fondness for dead and doomed storytellers, Thompson never fell back on the staple of popular crime writing, the series character. Each of his books stands alone.

Thompson wrote against the grain of a largely formulaic genre. Crime fiction generally features endings that tie everything up neatly and restore order to a perturbed world, but Thompson's stories often fall apart along with their tellers. In A Hell of a Woman (1954), for example, he juxtaposes two endings, shuffling the pieces together so that, while the narrator is apparently mutilated and left to die, one cannot be completely sure. Such ambiguity is total Thompson and is central to his innovative approach. More consistently than any other writer in the genre, Thompson brought the themes and techniques of literary modernism under the crime story umbrella.

This experimentation has a clear 1950s context. Thompson's stories of people coming unglued registered the fears and concerns boiling beneath the prosperity of postwar America. For example, in 1952 Thompson published one of the first serial-killer novels, The Killer inside Me. Instead of focusing on the police working to catch the criminal, Thompson places the reader inside the murderer's head for a wild and uncomfortable ride to an apocalyptic ending. The conflagration that consumes the killer and his pursuers at the end of the novel invokes the anxieties of the Cold War and the atomic age. Of course Thompson was also rendering his own agitation as a perpetually poor, binge-drinking alcoholic writer with a hardscrabble past, a financially insecure present, and a perpetually uncertain future. Throughout his career, Thompson borrowed liberally from the details of his own life for both setting and personal histories of his shaky characters.

Thompson's creative heyday abruptly ended when his longtime publisher, Lion Books, announced in 1954 that it would stop publishing paperback originals. His longtime editor, Arnold Hano, moved to California the next year. After this upheaval, says Thompson's biographer Robert Polito, “he would never write so consistently again” (Polito, p. 387). Thompson still wrote a lot though—crime stories, true crime stories, adventure stories, novels—and he even turned again to journalism briefly.

One of Thompson's fans, the film director Stanley Kubrick, rescued the author from premature obscurity. Still a relative unknown in 1955, Kubrick invited Thompson to collaborate with him on the screenplay for The Killing (1956), which became a lively heist movie. This led to another collaboration on the script for Paths of Glory (1957), one of the most compelling antiwar films ever made. A courtroom drama set during World War I, Paths of Glory depicts the court martial of three French soldiers for retreating against orders from certain death in an attack demanded by a glory-seeking commanding general. Despite an eloquent defense by their advocate (played by Kirk Douglas), they are executed so that the general can save face. The movie raised the stars of both Douglas and Kubrick (who would collaborate again on Spartacus [1960]), but Thompson's career remained earthbound.

Thompson received no acclaim for his work on these movies. In fact he had to fight Kubrick for his rightful place in the credits. Meanwhile he continued to write. Thompson's last notable novel was the fine Pop. 1280 (1964), which examines topical racial issues through the warped narrative prism of Nick Corey, a priapic and psychotic rural sheriff who builds his murders into a huge Rube Goldberg–like self-preservation scheme. By the mid-1960s Thompson was largely played out; his career ran down through a series of forgettable novels, novelizations, and teleplays. He died in Los Angeles after a series of strokes had left him unable to write.

“Just you wait,” Thompson once said to his wife, “I'll be famous after I'm dead about ten years” (Polito, p. 508). He was right. In the late twentieth century Thompson became the subject of sustained critical attention and two biographies. During his lifetime Thompson wrote twenty-four novels, two autobiographies, three novelizations, two screenplays, and scores of articles and stories. His novels have been reissued in handsome editions, and respected, high-profile Hollywood films have been made from his books. In death Thompson gained the recognition and remuneration that eluded him in life. His posthumous success is an irony worthy of one of his own books.


Thompson's papers are at the New York University Library. Thompson's novelizations are Ironside (1967), The Undefeated (1969), and Nothing but a Man (1970). In addition to the works mentioned above, Thompson's novels include After Dark, My Sweet (1955), The Alcoholics (1953), Child of Rage (1972), The Criminal (1953), Cropper's Cabin (1952), The Getaway (1959), The Golden Gizmo (1954), The Grifters (1963), The Kill-Off (1957), King Blood (1973), The Nothing Man (1954), Recoil (1953), Savage Night (1953), South of Heaven (1967), A Swell-Looking Babe (1954), Texas by the Tail (1965), The Transgressors (1961), and Wild Town (1957). His autobiographies are Bad Boy (1953) and Roughneck (1954). Biographies are Michael J. McCauley, Jim Thompson: Sleep with the Devil (1991), and Robert Polito, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (1995), which is the definitive life. For critical work on Thompson see Sean McCann, Gumshoe America (2000), and Greg Forter, Murdering Masculinities (2000), each of which devotes a chapter to Thompson.