Before I stared writing noir, I read it. Ellroy, Simenon, Himes.
The first Jim Thompson book I read was The Killer Inside Me. I remember picking it up from the Borders at Silverlink in the north east of England, and a friend I was with looked at it, the title, curled her lip and shook her head. Perhaps she thought it was a biography.
Before I reached his work, Thompson’s was a name that kept creeping up in regard to the work of other writers I’d read and admired. I was drawn as much by his life story as the reviews of his books (in much the same way I initially found myself drawn by the biographies of the likes of James Ellroy and Harry Crews). Those reviews, though – nightmarish noir populated by unlikeable characters taking the scenic route to Hell? I was there. I was front and centre. I couldn’t get at them fast enough.
The Killer Inside Me did not disappoint. Nor did The Getaway, or the pseudo-Greek tragedy of The Grifters. Then came my favourite – Savage Night. This took all of his themes, of bad people doing bad things and having bad things done to them, of being trapped within hellish dimensions of their own design, and amped them up to a surreal degree. The ending (I understand there’s a very experimentally laid-out version, but the one I read was straightforward) is quite probably the best, and certainly most memorable, he ever wrote. The image of the axe-wielding, infant-footed Ruthie practising walking on her abnormal limb is one that stays in the mind, as is the last line – ‘And he smelled good.’
Jim Thompson just didn’t give a shit. I mean, maybe he did, I wouldn’t assume to know the man – but if any shits were given they don’t show. His writing is off the wall, it’s running screaming into the abyss. As Stephen King said, ‘Thompson let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it.’
Thompson was part of the school of writers that ploughed through their work as if driven by demons, and it shows. There’s a frantic urgency, an intensity, to his plotting and his characters that sweeps you up and carries you along scrambling for purchase, charging head-on into a collision that you can see coming but can’t do anything to avoid.
This is noir. It doesn’t have to be long and it doesn’t have to be pretty, but it has to do something inside you. It has to stir feelings you’d rather remained unstirred. It has to show you how the world really is – that there isn’t always a happy ending, and things just don’t work out the way you want them to.
Jean-Luc Godard said to make a movie all you need is a gun and a girl. Thompson personified this motif in written form, then shows how far you can take these minimal props, and to what crazed, extreme lengths you can go. Sometimes he doesn’t even bother with the gun.
No other author, with the possible exception of Stephen King, has influenced my writing the way Jim Thompson has. I’ve never wanted to be the kind of writer that puts out a book once every five years or so. I want to be prolific. I want to take all these ideas in my head and get them down on paper. In many cases I want to write the kind of thing you can take in at a sitting, then hopefully sit back and think, Fuck.
My last novella, An Eye For An Eye, was shaped by the caper novels of Chester Himes. Fatboy, however, is all Thompson. It’s my ode to the uncrowned king of noir. It’s got the girl, and it’s got the gun. It’s got bad people doing bad things. It’s brief, and it’s to the point.
And the ending?
Well, I guess that all depends on your definition of the term ‘happy’.
Bio: Paul Heatley lives in the north east of England. His short stories have appeared online and in print for publications such as Thuglit, Horror Sleaze Trash, Spelk, Near to the Knuckle, Shotgun Honey, the Pink Factory, and the Flash Fiction Offensive, among others. His fiction is dark and bleak, populated with misfits and losers on a hellbound descent, often eschewing genre and geography to create a nightmarish vision of a harsh and uncaring world. His blog can be found here.