Saturday, December 31, 2016

Savage Night - Jim Thompson

That was the week that Jake tried to frame me.
It was the week he tried to kill me.
It was the week Fay and I began brawling.
It was the week Ruthie...
Jesus! Jesus God, that week! Even now--and what do I have to worry about now?--it rips the guts out of me to think about it.

Black Lizard Books, 1985
It sounds like Hell Week, sort of.

I thought it appropriate to blow out 2016's posts with a psycho-noir masterpiece, Savage Night by Jim Thompson. I picked up my Black Lizard edition of this novel about 30 years ago from a store long since closed. Like most of us, I discovered these noir classics through Black Lizard reprints. Same thing with Harry Whittington and Dan J. Marlowe. Several years later Black Lizard was picked up by Random House and the novels were re-issued in trade paperback at a price of $10 instead of $3.95, which kind of sucked for readers at the time. But that's how the publishing world goes.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun(?) dipping back into the paranoid psycho-sexual nightmare of crime and madness that Jim Thompson was so good at bringing to the page. This one, from 1953 follows a hitman named Charlie Bigger on assignment to rub out a potential mob witness, Jake Winroy, before Winroy can testify and bring a whole heap of trouble down on men of influential standing.

Bigger comes to the town of Peardale in disguise as a student attending a teacher's college. He's been hired to kill Winroy before his trial date. His orders are to make the hit look like an accident. Bigger's boss is a shadowy kingpin referred to only as The Man. Charlie Bigger cuts a strange figure as a hitman. At barely 5 feet tall, bad teeth and poor eyesight, he hardly presents an imposing figure of menace. Lifts in his shoes, contact lenses and dentures help somewhat. Years of being called Sonny, and treated like a boy by women have hardened Bigger into something of a time bomb. Our only background on Bigger's violent life is given to us through an article in a True Detective magazine, much like the kind Thompson himself used to write.

Bigger is no sooner in town and taking residence in Winroy's home as a student boarder when he's in deep with a couple of unsettling dames in Fay (Winroy's wife) and Ruthie, Ruthie is another student, hired by the Winroys to come in and clean up house a few hours each day. Ruthie has an unsettling deformity which Bigger finds both horrifying and appealing. He relates to Ruthie as a misfit. Fay is a hardened dame with a past as a nightclub singer, hooking up with Jake during his Cadillac days and now living a frustrated existence with a washed out drunk. Jake is a clown, given to fits of drunken panic. He believes, rightly, that Bigger's arrival in town means his number is finally up.

Also thrown into the cast is fellow boarder, Kendall, a kindly older gentleman who seems to take more than a passing interest in Bigger's success as a student. Then there is Sheriff Summers, who has his own suspicions about our hero.

All of this makes for a pressure cooker of mounting paranoia for Charlie Bigger as he tries to navigate his way between lust for Ruthie and overtures from Fay and the fawning attentions from Kendall. Alone that makes for a nice setup, but Thompson isn't interested in pure plot to drive a story. His books are all about voice and where that voice is coming from. His protagonists are seething with hangups that often betray them.

For example, at one point midway through the novel, Bigger interrupts his story to tell us about a bizarre encounter with a writer he once met while he was hitchhiking through Vermont. This writer had a load of manuscripts in his car that he equated with manure. The writer also lived on a farm where he kept goats that fertilized a field of vaginas. He tells Bigger that he used to grow breasts and asses and legs, but finally settled for vaginas because there was no demand for the other stuff.

Throughout the novel the characters speak in broken patterns, as though having to constantly interrupt themselves before spilling their true intentions. It's something that becomes more and more apparent as the novel progresses, with Bigger often telling the reader that he feels as though he's disappearing. Disintegrating seems more like it. Ruthie stutters as she speaks, Bigger and Fay halt their words before they're half spoken, and by the end of the novel we have Bigger and Ruthie communicating only through grunts and gestures.

A whole lotta of weird for what's supposed to be a dime caper.

I'm sure a lot of study has gone into Thompson's novels, but one has to remember that Thompson wrote these with the necessity of making a living, not provoking college professors. There wasn't time to polish and rewrite. These are first draft fits of anger and humor, never forget the savage humor,  that make reading these novels so compelling. Thompson had enough bitter experience at life and work to dish it back plenty at the casual reader who happened upon one of his books at the drugstore rack. I like to picture him laughing to himself as he typed out scenes featuring a field of vaginas, or a guy hiding out in a barrel of mincemeat, or a protagonist laying it to a woman with a deformed leg. That's the fun I get out of these books.

Most noir fans have already read this novel. Many more have read his more famous The Killer Inside Me. There is nothing out there like them, and it's too bad that their popularity didn't come at a time when Thompson could have personally got the benefit of it.


  1. I love this one. And what a great last line.

  2. I totally agree. That last line was disturbing and weird and perfect for such a strange book.