Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Big Noir Sewer

"...he'll always be Big Jim to me, because he wrote big." - Stephen King

When I was a kid, mystery/thrillers held about as much fascination for me as romance novels.  I was primarily only familiar with the general banality of what I saw on the book rack at the grocery store.  It certainly wasn't the section that I ran to at the book store.  Admittedly, the crazy illustrations of rocket ships blasting off for worlds unknown in the sci-fi section fell more in line with my comic book reading, but I must admit that it was the horror genre that initially made a heavy reader out of me.  I think it was the hardcover Stephen King books that had been lent to my mother that initially caught my eye.  Poltergeist had petrified me at around six years old or so...but something about those covers remained tantalizing.  Me and horror called it a draw, and I delved in with The Stand.  For a kid, the superflu ranks significantly below "pants shitting scary" than The Shining. (As an adult, whole other story.)

It must've been the movies that convinced me to seek out something in the genre, and it wasn't long before I came to love the term 'hardboiled.'  And that's where I would find Jim Thompson.

I haven't read all of this books.  In fact, I only like to read one every other year or so.  It's the curse of the deceased author: once you've torn through them all, you can't ever read one again for the first time.  The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 remain my favorite Thompson novels, which is sort of odd as their almost the same book about crazy small town lawmen, but while Pop. 1280 has a very comic tone, albeit dark, Killer is just plain ice in the veins psychotic.

Then, I came across a copy of King Blood in a used bookstore. Hardcover. $1.  I knew it's reputation as one of Thompson's later works, but for the price, I had to delve in.

In a nutshell, the King family is a true bunch of sons of bitches. Critch King, a petty hustler, is coming home to the spacious Oklahoma Ranch of his father, Ike King, a landowner of some ill-repute.  The King's are sort of the old West version of the mob: yeah they do underhanded deals and aren't above a quick kill, but there is still a code to uphold. On the way, Critch manages to rob a young lady, who turns out to be part of a killer duo with her sister that she just ran out on, which sets off a sordid chain of events that just keeps getting more sordid as it goes.  (I'd give you more, but you just sort of have to read this upping of the level of darkness' ante for yourself.)

And there's certainly nothing new about that if you're familiar with Thompson's, it just doesn't quite work.  I've racked my brain on what seems to have gone wrong.  The characters are there.  The dialogue is there.  The situation's a little over the top, but not anymore ludicrously so than a lot of other crime novels.  Somewhere along the line, however, it goes from Thompson's usual hardboiled frontier crime drama to strange frontier melodrama.  There's just something silly about what used to be straight up bad ass.  In Thompson's other books, the characters had a certain pathos as they took the express train to hell, but here, there's something a little sappier and dopier about them.  But it's nothing I can pinpoint because, like I said, everything's the same...and yet not the same.

Crime fiction legend James Ellroy wrote the forward to the edition I picked up (definitely not the one pictured above), and he probably put it the best: "It's psychopathic slapstick".  So, that's not to say it's not a fun read, it is, but it's definitely not top of the list or the place to start if delving into the dark world of Jim Thompson.  King Blood is more for a guilty pleasure after you've covered the greats.

(On a side note: In retrospect, it was funny that I eschewed crime fiction for Stephen King only to find out years later what a fan King was of the genre himself.)

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