Monday, April 18, 2011

The Killer Inside Me

I purchased Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me because of an unlikely reason.  That is what I told the clerk at the Paperback Booksmith, a bookstore I used to hang out at in the Poconos.  "There's a line about it in a Dead Milkmen song.  I figured I'd check it out."  So I bought it and read it.  The book has garnished a lot of praise, but it didn't blow me away.

If you haven't read it, the book is a quick bit of crime fiction concerning Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in a small Texas town.  He's got ... problems.  Written in the first person, Thompson's work puts you right into the mind of a man who thinks a bit differently than most people.  Yeah, he's a cop, but not all cops are like this one.

This was originally published in 1952.  Five years from then, Ed Gein's farmhouse of horrors with its preserved vaginas and human skin masks would be discovered.  That was shocking at the time.  The Killer Inside Me, while not real, was probably just as shocking to readers.  Thing is, though, Gein is still shocking.  Thompson's book is not.

We understand more about what motivates crime and criminals.  Killers, serial and not-so-serial, have written of their thoughts, feelings and deeds.  Thompson's work, while believable, becomes less effective because by now we have heard this story (or variations of it) from the mouths of those who have committed the crimes.  The real crimes.  Not the fictional ones.  The truth, as they say, is always stranger than fiction.

Thompson's work has been praised for being believable, which it is.  I would argue, however, that if you are writing a first person story from the mind of a criminal it better be believable or else you've failed.  Thompson was doing his job.  A job he may have done better than others, but his job nonetheless.  In 1952 that job probably caused quite a few people to shudder.  Today it's just part of the norm. 

I'm not trying to take the piss out of Thompson's book.  I think it holds up well enough, and it has earned its praise.  I just don't think it is nearly as effective as it was when first published, and that is due more to our society than it is due to Thompson's skills.  Thompson's work hasn't detached itself from society.  Society has become Thompson's work.  When Thompson wrote this, he was trying to understand a killer, and show his motivations in a way that made sense and were horrifying to a populace that didn't really understand these things.  Now we have a library full of books that do the exact same thing directly from the source, and specials on cable television to fill in the gaps.  If you are going to read this, you have to understand that idea.  If you want to feel like a reader circa 1952 did when picking this up, you have to forget what you already know.  You have to go in fresh, and I think that is just too hard to do now.

As far as noir goes, though, it sets the bar high ... and it sure as hell works.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: Let's call the FTC a cocksucker.  See if its read The Killer Inside Me. If you click on a link and purchase something, I may get a small commission because they are affiliate links.  If you want a good look at real criminals, look at the FTC.

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