Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Killer Inside Me

The Killer Inside Me
Jim Thompson
256 pages
Vintage (1991)
First published, 1952

Lou Ford, 29, is the Deputy Sheriff of Central City, Texas. He's a local boy, son of the town doctor, and a sure thing to marry the girl next door. He's also a secret sufferer of what he terms "the sickness": textbook sociopathy, most likely, the dramatic upshot of which is a penchant for committing nasty murders, preferably of women. It first emerged in adolescence and resurfaces when Lou is drawn into a plot to silence a prostitute with the potential to embarrass the town's first family. Things rapidly escalate when suspicion falls on Lou and he needs to eliminate an ever-growing number of human loose ends, including several people he claims to love.

The genius of Thompson's dark classic is that he manages to horrify us with Lou’s truly vicious murders and all the calm premeditation that goes into them – every monstrous step narrated in Lou's wonderfully deadpan voice – and yet still have us feeling for him. Lou’s flat, affectless delivery is anything but unaffecting. He’s intelligent, cynical, self-aware and chillingly rational in his irrationality until he detours into obvious delusion towards the end. But by that point you understand him. You can't forgive him, but by witnessing his villainy from the inside you might just be able to accept that, for Lou, things couldn't have been any other way.

Technically, there's a lot to like here, and potentially a lot to learn for those interested in writing their own thrillers: an engaging voice, beautiful plotting, some agonizingly suspenseful scenes (Lou’s visit to Johnnie Papas in the lockup, in particular), masterful use of laconic speech rhythms and Texan dialect, and a whole raft of wonderfully realized minor characters who, while still identifiably small-town types, are never caricatures. But the construction of Lou Ford is Thompson’s real achievement. Numerous scholarly articles available online explore Lou’s “sickness” and find consistency with clinical diagnoses – some of which post-date the novel’s publication, suggesting Thompson had remarkable native insight into this kind of character (including their tendency to misdiagnose themselves). While I don’t think we should psychoanalyze characters as if they were real people, authors constructing fictional killers can obviously benefit from a good working knowledge of the symptoms, behaviours, inner life and childhood origins of the pathologies they want their villains to express. Thompson’s novel demonstrates how engaging and enduring such veracity can be.

It’s endured, too, because this novel is actually about something, and not just mental illness: there are several passages in which Thompson touches on the tenuousness of civilized morality; on the phoniness of social interaction and the grim reality it masks. The recognition of this commonplace inversion of values – the difference between the way the world actually is, and the way we say it is or think it should be – is a staple of the noir genre, of course. But Thompson gives it a highly effective workout here, making this a superior novel. Running chills up and down your spine is one thing. Making you think is something else.

Sidenote: Those who enjoyed Casey Affleck’s performance as Patrick Kenzie in big brother Ben’s 2007 adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone might be interested to know he’s playing Lou Ford in a new adaptation of The Killer Inside Me directed by Michael Winterbottom. Currently filming, it’s slated for release in 2010. Stacey Keach played Ford to good effect in the otherwise undistinguished 1976 version, but the unassuming young Affleck should bring some rather chilling, baby-faced menace to the role.

1 comment:

Henry said...

I'm a "A Hell of A Woman" man myself. Many shades weirder. Interested to see the movie. Casey Affleck is an interesting actor, unlike some other actors working today who's last name begins with A and ends with ffleck.