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The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

August 22, 2011 12 comments

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. 1952. Translated into French as Le démon dans ma peau.

Hello Reader and Cyber visitor whose Google spaceship landed here by mistake,

This post starts with a quiz to be efficient and prevent you from losing your time – Isn’t time a precious thing in our century? Someday Time Bonds will be sold on the commodity stock markets like these rights to pollute. But I’m digressing.

Question 1: Do you know Jim Thompson? If no, stop wasting your time here and go to His Futile Preoccupation and read about Thompson there.

If you read this, that means you know Jim Thompson or you don’t want to take my advice, well, it’s your choice. Question 2: Have you read The Killer Inside Me? If no, stop wasting your time here and go to this review.

Still there? Either you’re a) really stubborn; b) brand new to the Internet and you don’t know how to click on links; c) a reader who knows The Killer Inside Me AND wants to know what I thought about it. (pretty low probability) In any case, welcome on board for a chilling journey in Lou’s head, the most psycho of all the characters I’ve met in crime fiction so far. Here’s our man self-analysing:

Plenty of pretty smart psychiatrists have been fooled by guys like me, and you can’t really fault ’em for it. There’s just not much they can put their hands on, know what I mean?

We might have the disease, the condition; or we might just be cold-blooded and smart as hell; or we might be innocent of what we’re supposed to have done. We might be any of those three things, because the symptoms we show would fit any one of the three.

Lou Ford, 29, is Deputy Sheriff in Central City, Texas, the kind of place where everybody knows everything about everybody and where you’re still a stranger even if you’ve been living there for twenty years. The novel was published in 1952 and the action is set in that year too. From the first chapter, you know that Lou is a weird guy, especially when he burns a bum with a cigarette butt for nothing, just on the impulse of the moment. He enjoys hurting that bum and I was already ill-at-ease. In French, I would have said “Lou est un drôle de loulou.”

Lou is the son of the now-deceased doctor of the town. He had a brother, Mike, who spent years in prison for assaulting a little girl. When he went out of prison, he became a building inspector and died in a strange accident on his work place. Chester Conway, the rich man of the town who’s in every business and also in construction, had interest that Mike kept his nose out of his muddy business. Lou knows this and intends to use the information if needed.

Things start to get out of hand when Sheriff Maples sends Lou to have a little chat with Joyce Lakeland who recently settled in Central City and makes money out of prostitution. The aim is to make her leave the town as the local bourgeoisie doesn’t like the idea of a whore making business on their land. The encounter will trigger something in Lou’s mind (what he calls “the sickness”) and put his revenge into motion.

Lou Ford is a sick character. He sounds stupid but he’s manipulative and clever. He spices his speech with ridiculous clichés such as “The boy is father to the man” or “The man with the grin is the man who will win” or proverbs. He does it on purpose, to hide his intelligence. We reader, know exactly what he thinks, even if sometimes we’d rather not:

Hell you’ve probably seen me if you’ve ever been out this way – I’ve stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside. Just watching the people.

Lou could be Nick’s older brother. (Nick is the main character of Pop. 1280, see my review here) The construction of the two novels is very similar but Pop 1280 turns into black comedy when The Killer Inside Me remains serious and chilling. You can’t help wondering how many Lous are on the loose in our streets. It is written in such a way that Lou talks directly to the reader and as Guy pointed out, The Killer Inside Me is both the killer inside Lou and Lou as a killer inside you, reader. It is so gripping that I bought it for a friend who’s a nurse in psychiatric hospital. She’s specialised in schizophrenia, I’m curious to have her opinion on this book.

In both books, Thompson destroys what make the essence of life in small towns: a state of corruption where the rich are like royalty and do what they want, the permanent gossips, the hypocrisy (Lou explains everybody knows who’s sleeping with whom but the rule is to turn your head to the other side). Of course, all these people are pretty religious in appearance and Lou explains “I picked up lots of good lines at prayer meetings” either giving a lesson to those people who forget on Sundays what they do the rest of the week or turning the speech of genuine believers into something dirty.

For Lou and for Nick, an encounter with a woman and dealings with prostitution will start their journey as cold-blooded killers.

Lou and Nick have many things in common. Their mothers died when they were born. Nick’s father used to beat him. Lou’s father didn’t beat him but knew he was unbalanced. Lou could have studied medicine too but that meant leaving to university and Lou’s father wanted to watch him out. He was afraid of what he was capable of if he left. That’s the sad part of the story. Lou’s intelligence is wasted. If he’s really sick, the absence of efficient treatment and of decent solution for him backfired into his killing spree. Who knows what would have happened with proper medicine and if his father had not cut his wings?

Thompson has a disquieting vision of humanity:

How do you know who I am, Johnnie? How can a man ever really know anything? We’re living in a funny world, kid, a peculiar civilization. The police are playing crooks in it, and the crooks are doing police duty. The politicians are preachers, and the preachers are politicians. The tax collectors collect for themselves. The Bad People want us to have more dough, and the Good People are fighting to keep it from us. It’s not good for us, know what I mean? If we all had all we wanted to eat, we’d crap too much. We’d have inflation in the toilet paper industry. That’s the way I understand it. That’s about the size of some of the arguments I’ve heard.

I’ve read many crime fiction books with more or less horrible murders. What makes this one special is the way you are in Lou’s mind. I can’t help wondering how Thompson’s mind worked for him to be able to create such characters and minutely describe their insanity. I can’t help wondering if he wasn’t a little bit sick too.

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