I enjoy the occasional dose of dark, gritty noir. Last year, I read my first Mike Hammer novel (Kiss Me Deadly) and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice; I also enjoyed James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, despite the twisted subject material. But a little goes a long way. These books are a bit formulaic, sometimes: mean streets; tough, even brutal, but basically decent hero; femme fatale; blam blam blam. Not that there’s anything wrong with that once in a while, but as a steady diet it can get old.
The Killer Inside Me was different.
Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel is told by deputy sheriff Lou Ford, a young man in a tiny Texas town. Lou is an unremarkable guy, a small-town cop with a steady girlfriend (everyone knows he’ll marry her one of these days), and his worst habit is probably the way he bores you with all those corny platitudes while you’re dying to get away. What no one knows is that Lou is barely holding it together. Lou is an arctic, cunning, depraved psychopath, and you don’t want to get in his way.
I don’t want to give an extensive plot summary — it wouldn’t matter anyway. The crosses and double-crosses and surprises and twists should be yours to discover, and they’re tightly plotted. What matters more than anything is the tone of this novel, the voice. It starts out by tempting you to think that Lou is just another hick cop, with perhaps a few… shall we say… issues, and then he meets Joyce Lakeland, a prostitute, and the wheels just come off the bus. There’s violence in this book, and cruelty, and sex, but the most chilling thing is that the man who is behind it all is capering and grinning behind his facade of sanity. He has everyone fooled — or almost fooled, fooled enough so that they wonder but don’t quite act — and he only unleashes it when he knows he won’t be caught. He’s well aware of the killer inside him. They’ve lived together a long time. He’s almost friends with the fellow. And he has no intention of letting anyone else in on the secret, until things have gotten so far out of hand that even Lou can see that it’s too late.
I thought this novel was uncomfortably brilliant, bleak, unrelenting. I don’t know what it’s like to be a psychopath, but it seems like Jim Thompson might. This is not your average noir novel, and if you can take a long, dark ride, I highly recommend it.
*Note: there seems to have been a movie version of this book in 2010, starring Casey Affleck, and it got bad reviews for being so violent against women. All I can say is that the book is certainly violent against women, but it’s equally violent against men. Hooray?