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The Greatest Crime Writer

Books to Die For, a collection of 120 of the most influential living writers of crime and suspense discussing their favorite works, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, will be available this Tuesday, October 2nd.  We may not be publishing it ourselves, but we’re sure as hell excited about it–which is why we’re featuring Jo Nesbo’s essay today on Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, available as a Mulholland e-book for $4.99.

Dubbed the “Dimestore Dostoevsky” by novelist Geoffrey O’Brien, Jim Thompson (1906–77) published more than thirty novels during his career. Despite early critical praise, and particularly positive reviews from Anthony Boucher in the New York Times, Thompson’s talent went largely unrecognized during his lifetime. He made his debut in 1942 with Now and On Earth, and is best known for novels such as The Killer Inside Me (1952), Savage Night (1953), A Hell of a Woman (1954), The Getaway (1958), and The Grifters (1963), all of which were characteristic of an oeuvre that unflinchingly explored the darkest and nastiest recesses of the human psyche. “He let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it,” declared Stephen King. Well served by film adaptations, and particularly French filmmakers, Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me was remade in 2010, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Casey Affleck.

There’s a clip in the Sylvester Stallone film, Cop Land. The clip only lasts about one or two seconds, and doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film. It’s a brief flash of a sign showing the number of inhabitants in the town. The sign says, “Pop. 1280.”

I looked around the cinema when it came on the screen, and listened. No reaction. Obviously. Because it was 1997 and this was a coded mes- sage for the initiated few, a bonus for those who had dived into the deep- est depths of pulp literature and found Jim Thompson, the genius who portrayed the American psychopath in the first person some forty years before Brett Easton Ellis did the same in American Psycho.

I personally hadn’t had to dive so deep myself. I was served Jim Thompson on a silver platter by a friend, Espen, who told me it was “old, but good stuff.” The book had the very promising title of Pop. 1280 and a not-quite-so-promising sheriff on the cover. And maybe that was the only way to discover Jim Thompson: you had to be guided to him by someone like Espen, someone who moved freely beyond the main highways and narrow paths of literary snobbery.

Because Jim Thompson is not to be found in any best-seller list or serious literary publication; he was neither the talk of the town nor a cult phenomenon. Jim Thompson died in 1977, but by then, in a way, he had already been dead a long time. Written off, labeled as a mediocre crime writer who, by the end of his seventy-year life, had destroyed any credibility he might still have enjoyed by writing bad books with one aim in mind: to give the readers what he thought they wanted, so that he could earn enough money to cover his rent, medical expenses, and alcohol consumption. He had betrayed his own talent and his real fans, and undermined any possibility of ever being taken seriously again. There weren’t many who saw a reason to go to Jim Thompson’s funeral. Fewer still actually turned up, due to a printing error in his death notice. It was like the final chapter of a Jim Thompson novel.

Then in 1984, Black Lizard Press started to print Jim Thompson again. And it was one of these paperbacks that Espen gave me.

I read. Opened my eyes. And understood.

I then proceeded to read the rest of Thompson’s work—not every single line and page, but the best and most important books, because I quickly learned that it was necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. At his best, Jim Thompson was fantastic. At his worst, he was therefore all the more remarkably bad. How could the author who had written Savage Night, Hell of a Woman, and The Grifters also write The Rip-Off ? (Given the limited attention that Jim Thompson has received in Norway, it is unbelievable that this particular book has been translated into Norwegian (Bløffen, published by Cappelen), but read it and compare it to the rest if you want to see just how much an author’s production can vary, in terms of quality!)

The answer lies possibly in Jim Thompson’s desperate consumption of alcohol and the associated deterioration in his health. For here was a candle that burned at both ends, and—I’m taking a chance here as Jim Thompson never denied himself a dodgy metaphor—that is precisely why it burned so bright. So brightly, in fact, that between 1952 and 1954, in the space of just eighteen months, he wrote twelve novels, including some of his very best. Following this eruption of creativity, the gaps between each book, and between the high points in his writing, got longer, whereas the periods between his excessive drinking and his stints in the hospital grew shorter. Pop. 1280, which he wrote in 1964, was his last great work. He returned to the figure of the bad sheriff (Nick Corey), the same figure with which he started out in 1952 when he introduced Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me.

And after that, it was over: the decline had started, before he ever managed to become the Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett that he could have been. And yet, on his deathbed, he said to his wife: “Just wait, I’ll be famous within ten years of my death.” I think we can answer that statement with Sheriff Nick Corey’s mantra: “I wouldn’t say you was wrong, but I sure wouldn’t say you was right, either.”

But in my book, Jim Thompson is still the greatest crime writer. And so I can only say to you what Espen said to me back then when he handed me that copy of Pop. 1280: “I envy you, because you still haven’t read this.”

Jo Nesbø is a Norwegian author best known for his police procedurals featuring Detective Harry Hole. He made his debut in 1997 with Flaggermusmannen ( The Bat), although the first of his novels to be translated into English was Marekors (2003), published in translation as The Devil’s Star (2005). In total there are nine Harry Hole novels, the most recent of which is Phantom (2012). A film adapted from his stand-alone novel Hodejegerne (2008), aka Headhunters (2011), was released in 2012. Nesbø has won a slew of literary prizes in Scandinavia, including Best Norwegian Crime Novel Ever Written for The Redbreast in 2004.

John Connolly is the author of such international bestsellers as The Whisperers, The Gates, The Lovers, The Reapers, The Unquiet, The Black Angel, Every Dead Thing, Dark Hollow, The Killing Kind, The Book of Lost Things, and Bad Men.  His 11th Charlie Parker novel, The Wrath of Angels, was published in August in the UK and Ireland, and will be out in the US on January 1, 2013. He is also the host of the weekly radio show ABC to XTC.  He divides his time between Dublin, Ireland and Portland, Maine.

Declan Burke is the author of Eightball Boogie, The Big O, Absolute Zero Cool and the recently-released Slaughter’s Hound.  He is also the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century.  He lives in Wicklow with his wife Aileen and baby daughter Lily, and hosts a website dedicated to Irish crime fiction called Crime Always Pays.