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The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

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.

  1. August 23, 2011 at 2:13 am

    Do you remember when Lou takes Amy to church and sends the time feeling her up? I have one more title left to read from the original noirfest list.

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    • August 24, 2011 at 10:20 am

      Sorry I didn’t understand what “sends the time feeling her up” means.
      I gave The Killer Inside Me to my friend last night. She told me they have the film in the hospital in their database on movies related to mental sicknesses. She was thrilled to have the book and promised to read it soon. I’m really curious toknow what she’ll think of it.

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  2. August 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    His vision of humanity may be disquieting, but it’s also sardonic and spot-on. He’s sort of like Mark Twain the way he dissects human intellectual pretension with folksy aw-shucks quips – but much darker. (Of course, Twain got pretty dark at the end of his life.)

    One of the constants of Thompson’s ‘social critique’ is his scathing remarks regarding class divisions in society. Remember, he was a communist for a while! A commie with a sense of humor – could have used a lot more of those! What if Lenin had known how to take a joke – who knows what history would have been!

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    • August 24, 2011 at 10:28 am

      I haven’t read Mark Twain so far. (only seen cartoons when I was a child)
      I didn’t know Thompson was a communist. (thanks for telling me the English word for the French “coco”, I was wondering what it was)
      In the two Thompson I’ve read the ruling families of the towns are depicted as hypocrit, sticking together to keep the power and making arrangements with the law when they need it.
      Too bad that the French expression “tirer à boulets rouges sur quelqu’un” (your expression is ‘to lay into somebody”, the dictionary says.) doesn’t translate literally. (“to shoot someone with red bullets”). It seems really appropriate for Thompson’s literature.

      About the society he describes. For me it is extremely strange that a judge is elected by the people. (I know it stills exists in the US) From my French point of view, a judge can only be independant and work without pressure if he’s a civil servant whose job is permanent, ie, he can’t be fired.

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      • August 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm

        Judges are elected by the people everywhere in the US, but only to a certain level. I’m not clear on where election ends, and appointment starts. Appointments are sometimes for life.

        As de Toqueville observed, in America, all power is seen as flowing from the people. This has its good and bad sides!

        The figure of the utterly corrupt local judge in league with local criminals or shady operators is a constant in American movies and crime literature.

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  3. August 23, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I wonder the same occasionally and certainly did after having read American psycho. Do you need to have issues to write like this.
    It sounds like one of his really good ones but I got a few other ones on my TBR pile…. Time, time.
    The idea of being really inside of his head is certainly fascinating. I had my share of sick people in my life, would be interesting to read how he compares.

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    • August 24, 2011 at 10:30 am

      It’s a great crime fiction novel. I’m not surprised the cover of my edition includes a praise from Stanley Kubrick.

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  4. August 24, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    It’s rather shameful I’ve not read this yet. This is probably my next Thompson. I’m looking forward to one of you covering The Grifters – the only one by him I’ve read so far.

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    • August 25, 2011 at 7:46 am

      It’s not very long, it’s gripping, it’s excellent.

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  5. December 5, 2011 at 12:07 am

    As an aside to the review, here are my thoughts about the film version by Michael Winterbottom with Casey Affleck playing Lou.

    The film version is excellent, really faithful to the book but the book is better. The film really shows the atmosphere, the small town, the Southern way of life. (It was impossible to watch without subtitles, they seem to forget to open their mouths to speak)
    Lou is insane and kills in cold blood but the book is a lot more shattering as you really follow Lou’s mind, the progression of the ideas in his head, the plans he makes. In the film (and I had the same impression when I watched the film version of Pop 1280), you see that Lou is crazy but he’s a lot more manipulative in the book. When you read the novel, you’re more in Lou’s mind than when you watch the film.
    The choice of Casey Affleck is excellent, he has exactly the kind of physique I imagined for Lou. The only thing that bothered me is that, in my head, Lou’s voice was deeper. He was talking like Johnny Cash or Milke Doughty.

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  1. January 1, 2012 at 1:09 am
  2. August 20, 2015 at 6:14 pm

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