How to make her run? No problem there. For a fearful shadow lies constantly over the residents of Uneasy Street. It casts itself through the ostensibly friendly handshake, or the gorgeously wrapped package. It beams out from the baby’s carriage, the barber’s chair, the beauty parlor. Every neighbor is suspect, every outsider, every period; even one’s own husband or wife of sweetheart. There is no ease on Uneasy Street. The longer one’s tenancy, the more untenable it becomes.
I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve never read Jim Thompson before. The man has a reputation as THE master of mid-twentieth-century crime fiction, turning the genre on its head and invigorating it with literary technique and artfulness that set him above the crowd. Like most of the crime writers I read on here, Thompson didn’t acquire his current respect and admiration while he was alive (though New York Times mystery reviewer Anthony Boucher had some kind words to say about him), instead gaining popularity when publisher Black Lizard reprinted his books in the ’80s. I own several of his most famous ones: The Killer Inside Me from the excellent Library of America two-volume set on American noir; Pop. 1280 and The Getaway in e-form; and this one, The Grifters, later made into a 1990 neo-noir that garnered four Oscar nominations.
Roy Dillon is a con artist. Only a small-timer, working the small cons: trick coin-flips and dice tricks; handing an absent-minded cashier a twenty to pay for an insignificant-priced item while digging around in his pocket to find enough coins to pay for it, palming the change made by the cashier, then pulling out enough coins to pay for the item and requesting the twenty back, making a decent sum in the process. Roy’s not doing too well, since some angry shopkeepers bludgeoned him in the stomach, and now Roy’s dying without realizing it. It can’t be that bad, since it doesn’t hurt—right?
Roy’s mother Lilly is a cold and distant woman, young enough to be his sister, and also a con artist. Married at thirteen, a mother at fourteen, she became a widow and made off with her husband’s inheritance treating herself to life’s finery while treating her son Roy like garbage. Up until he left home at eighteen, never looking back. And now she’s back in town, working for a gangster with the impressive name of Bobo Justus to manipulate the payback odds for horse racing bets. Lilly made the mistake and scammed Bobo enough to piss him off, and his vengeance is rough. But she’s still got a convertible with a trunk full of cash.
Roy’s girlfriend Moira Langtry is old enough to be his mother, but that’s not a hard accomplishment. She’s also a con artist who was married to a master of the long con. Her husband would butter-up a mark through friendly smiley-gladhanding, before asking for investment or financial help in a ’60s version of the Nigerian/419 scam. That is, until he descended into drink and dope, and drove away Moira through his crazed behavior. Moira’s living the high life by hocking the jewelry her ex bought her and living the high life of a call-girl, while sleeping with Roy and exchanging battles of wordplay with Lilly.
Together, the relationships between these three are the triangle that bears the weight of the novel. Each is a swindler, a con man, a grifter, and each is also a human being. Roy struggles with surviving, first, the gut-wound that put him in critical condition in the hospital. That triggers a paradigm shift brooding within Roy; a promotion to a better sales position that would infringe on his ability to con soon becomes a crisis point for him. It’d mean coming clean and earning an honest wage—but he’d lose access to the grift he’s known for so long, the con tricks he’s immersed himself in to get ahead in the sucker’s game of life.
Lilly and Roy have their own love-hate relationship; it’s clear they’re so similar yet so different, and they can’t get over the competitive, distant relationship they have. Roy grew up being taunted by Lilly whenever he had a scraped knee or broken arm—“Only one knee, Roy? Only one arm?”—and when he walked out on her when he turned 18, his response to “You’re breaking my heart, Roy!” was “Only one heart?” Now she’s hovering over him in the hospital like an attentive mother, and he’s hesitantly soaking it in; both remain unsure of the sincerity of their relationship, wondering if one side is playing the other for some greater goal.
Lilly and Moira’s relationship is the most complex. Roy has some serious mommy issues; Moira is similar to Lilly in age, hair color, build, and even (somewhat) personality. As such, Lilly and Moira each want Roy for themselves, embroiled in bitter rivalry and snide remarks from the start. Lilly introduces a supporting character, Roy’s nurse Carol Roberg, into the fray; she uses her on to watch over Roy, hoping to drive a wedge between Roy and Moira. It kind of worked, since Carol is kind of cute, almost virginal. But her broken English and skitterish demeanor are a veneer hides a shocking revelation that sickens Roy when he discovers it.
As you might have noticed, I’ve written more about characters than I have crime; this is not the crime novel in the vein of Hammett or Spillane or Westlake, but the subtle, slow-burn of self-destruction that authors like Charles Williams, Gil Brewer, and David Goodis use to their advantage. Those authors were skilled veterans at portraying the bleak corruption and downward spiral of the protagonist; by contrast, Thompson is the master: he doesn’t just paint a nihilistic portrait, he takes you on a guided tour of his characters’ personal hells. Thompson creates shimmers of hope reflected in a pool of misery and moral decay right before the brutal end crashes down with clean, surgical precision. So, no, not a crime novel in terms of private eyes and mobster hoods, but a realistic portrayal of criminals in a world where both the right way and the wrong way lead to damnation. Best of all, the writing is timeless; unlike some other vintage crime I’ve read, not once did the novel feel like it was trapped in the 1960s.
For my first Jim Thompson novel, I’d say this was a winner. The author has a deceptively simple writing style that displays a crystal-clear portrait of human brutality, a methodical look at sympathetic characters laden with flashes of poetic imagery that concludes with an ending that’s a swift and unexpected kick to the groin. A shocking tale of beautiful misery that I highly recommend to any and all takers. I understand now; I have seen the light, and its name is Jim Thompson. There are many skilled authors who’ve tackled the grim loners lurking on society’s fringe, and while each has their own strengths and skills, I haven’t seen one handle it with the same artful grace and style as Thompson.