10 February 2010

First-Person Noir Classic: The Killer Inside Me

The Killer Inside Me (1952)
By Jim Thompson

“You see why I had to kill her, I reckon. Or do you? It was like this.…”

A new movie version of Jim Thompson’s roman noir classic The Killer Inside Me will come out in theaters later this year. The first adaptation was in 1977 and starred Stacy Keach. The new fillm is directed by Michael Winterbottom (Wonderland, Welcome to Sarajevo, and criminally forgotten Western The Claim) and stars Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Simon Baker, Bill Pullman, and Elias Koteas. It premiered at Sundance in January. Reviews from the festival have been mixed, but movie did cause a stir over its violence at the screening. IFC picked up the film for distribution, and no doubt the company hopes to ride some of the shocked reactions from viewers to a good box office return on their $1.5 million investment. (I expect the movie will appear in limited release during late summer.)

I don’t understand the negativity I’ve heard about the movie’s violence. It’s a film noir about a psychopathic killer. You’re not supposed to cheer the man on. I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment on how brutal the physical violence is on screen, but if it’s anything like what Thompson put on the page, I can imagine why many people will find it hard to watch deputy sheriff Lou Ford beat a woman to death.

But, again, Lou Ford is a psychopathic murderer. He’s not a model citizen. The point of the book is to peer into a mind capable of this sort of cold-blooded brutality and make you squirm as you read/watch it. If anything, the movie allows the viewer a way to get some distance from the main characters, while the book forces you to see the world through his eyes and no one else’s.

But at this point, I can’t predict the film. Maybe it will end up a dud and the violence will seem exploitative. I can only say for certain that the novel is a masterpiece, one of the very best works of noir and crime fiction ever put on the page. As a work of first-person narration, it’s genius. But it’s a mean, nasty book. The noir universe is not a comfortable place. And I’m glad that the news from Sundance made me pick up my copy of the book and read through it for the first time since the mid-1990s.

Thompson was the Midwestern noir maverick; he set his books in small towns in the modern frontier. The Killer Inside Me is set in the unexcitingly named Central City, a Texas burg of 48,000 people (just a bump up from Poisonville in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest). Deputy Lou Ford, like the town, isn’t much to see on the outside. A bit slow, kind of boring, never anything unexpected. All the people in Central City expect him to one day marry his sweetheart, school teacher Amy Stanton and settle down in the house his wealthy father left him.

But nothing is really right about Lou Ford. From page one, Thompson lets the reader in on the way this man’s mind works: “I liked the guy, as much as I like anybody. Polite, intelligent: guys like that are my meat.”

Lou, in his amiable narration to the reader—who might be sitting across from the deputy sheriff at a coffee shop table, hearing his side of the story—describes what he calls the sickness. It struck him when he was young, and his brother Mike took the blame for what Lou did with a young girl. His physician father also took some drastic steps to fix the problem. Although Lou attempts to pin down a specific disorder he has, it becomes clear throughout the book that the man is in complete control of his actions, a classic case of psychopathy.

Talking about the story details of The Killer Inside Me is difficult without revealing the twists and turns. Noir requires a plot that weaves in on itself with suspicions and reversals. Thompson uses one of the classic noir structures of a character who has committed a crime or crimes and has to find a way to extricate himself as events close in around him—usually forcing him to commit further crimes. Lou Ford starts the book in his normal place, his world making the sort of sense to him that he needs it to make. Then two events come together. Lou meets and starts a physically violent affair with Joyce Lakeland, a prostitute who lives on the edge of town and flips over the deputy sheriff when he comes to bust her. When Joyce suggests they shakedown Elmer Conway, the son of construction owner and big shot Chester Conway, Lou sees an opportunity to get back at the elder Conway for his shady role in the death of Lou’s brother. It will mean killing Elmer—and Joyce as well, but that’s how these things have to topple in the mind of Lou Ford.

Right before I re-read The Killer Inside Me, I had gone through Dr. Robert B. Hare’s famous study on psychopathy, Without Conscience. The familiarity of what Hare studied for twenty-five years and the way Lou Ford thinks and acts are startling; it’s almost as if Jim Thompson built a time machine to get hold of a copy of Dr. Hare’s book, and then closely based his main character on Hare’s findings. Ford is a perfect model for Hare’s description of a psychopath: he has no empathy for others (although he can pretend to), feels zero remorse for his actions, labels his victims as the guilty ones and himself as the victim (while still acknowledging his crimes), manipulates others with a puppet master skills, and speaks glibly and charmingly.

Ford reveals himself both in his most reflective thoughts…
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 one of those three things, because the symptoms we would show would fit any one of the three.
…and in the details of his relations with others…
I sat down on the edge of the tub, and lighted a cigar. I sat thinking—standing outside of myself—thinking about myself and Bob Maples. He’d always been pretty decent to me, and I liked him. But no more, I suppose, than I liked a lot of other people. When it came right down to cases, he was just one of hundreds of people I knew and was friendly with. And yet here I was, fretting about his problems instead of my own.
None of the crimes that Lou Ford commits in the course of the story are done out of passion or in fits of madness; he is ice-cold and calculating—and spending nearly two hundred and fifty pages in his close company is both skin-crawling and fascinating.

This fascination will bother some readers, and they probably know who they are before they decide to pick up the book. Ford’s actions are indefensible, and Thompson’s descriptions of the man’s murders are harrowing to read—it’s as if the author were slugging you in the face himself. Readers don’t want to see Lou Ford get away with his killings; but because readers have to live in this man’s mind, it’s impossible not to feel empathy with him and secretly wonder if he can escape from the trap that closes around him as he has to keep killing and killing to stay ahead of the county attorney who may put all the pieces together. The reader participates in an almost shameful closeness with Lou Ford, a dark desire to see someone so clever actually get away murder. This is one of the essences of great noir: making the audience complicit in the crimes.

Thompson’s style has to be experienced to be understood. It’s raw and honest (although bent—this is a psychopath’s mind, after all), and the savagery of the violence will get people’s stomachs in knots. The most astonishing section of the book is the pivotal acts of brutality, the ones that cause Lou Ford’s charade to start collapsing, in Chapters 18 and 19. Chapter 18 is a masterful piece of time-manipulation through first-person point of view, as Lou Ford pulls us on a yo-yo string toward the key moment. He lets us know what will happen, but then keeps backing away from it. When he at last gives in and decides to give us the details, he opens up with an amazing piece of self-referential writing:
In lots of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He’ll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babble about stars flashing and sinking into a deep dreamless sea. And you can’t figure out whether the hero’s laying his girl or a cornerstone. I guess that kind of crap is supposed to be pretty deep stuff—a lot of the book reviewers eat it up, I notice. But the way I see it is, the writer is just too goddamn lazy to do his job. And I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything.

But I want to get everything in the right order.

I want you to understand how it was.
Which he does—in chilling detail. However, Thompson was often guilty of doing exactly what Ford describes here, so this also sounds like the author addressing the conventions of his own genres, or else just poking himself in the ribs.

The Killer Inside Me does ultimately hinge on a strange and hard to swallow turn of events, but by the finale Thompson achieves the same trick that Cornell Woolrich often does: engulf the reader so much in the character and the sense of impending death that it’s impossible to pay attention to the implausibility of it all.

Here’s hoping that the upcoming film can capture even a tenth of what Thompson achieved in 1952. For anyone with an interest in crime literature or noir, The Killer Inside Me is essential reading.