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Sunday, July 25, 2010

We Escape Into the Criminal Mind

Those of us who were bold and ventured into the crime noir books by Jim Thompson (1906-1977) found a surprisingly interesting collection of page-turners. It was as if we each had a little devil sitting at the top of our book, turning those pages so we couldn't stop reading until we reached the end of the story! Although we didn't relate directly to the situations of the characters in these books, we could relate to the ambiance of the books being from a simpler time of writing and adventure across the United States. Reading these books reminded me of teenage times of reading an exciting story, being transported to the scene of the story, and not caring whether the story was uplifting or instructional. The characters in these books had to scatter from the crime scene and meet each other at designated seedy motels later, regardless of how many witnesses they had to kill along the way...and all this without cell phones!

Regarding the author, we learned that he had a hard life during his early years and never did achieve fame and fortune, even though he published 27 novels and acted as a screenwriter, presumably for some of the film adaptations of his novels. Thompson's books did not stay in print during his life but were brought back posthumously. Sigh.

The drinking and hard living that Thompson wrote about were obviously aspects of life that he was familiar with. Jan suggested that Thompson might have had what we now call bipolar disorder, but we didn't generally feel that the author was psychotic, even though some of his characters were. The sheriff in The Killer Inside Me had a psychosis involving rage and killing that the author may have derived from real medical research. There was a back story in the book, about some childhood trauma that happened between the character and a childhood caregiver. In some ways this make the book seem more modern than it is.

The stories made sense, and the characters performed necessary actions, such as killings, based on the situations they had gotten themselves into. Many got what they deserved! There were nuances of morality scattered through these stories. Sometimes the characters expressed their own morality from a first-person narrative, as in the case of the sheriff in The Killer Inside Me; he fought against that killer and tried so valiantly to control himself, the reader almost wanted him to get away. Mostly, the reader wanted him to stop killing people, whether by conquering his demons or getting caught. The scene where he slid and tripped in the blood was one of the most violent I have read.

In After Dark My Sweet, the characters were created as likeable. They planned a simple kidnapping, but things went wrong and people were killed. In The Getaway, conniving characters ran into double crossers who trumped their own double-crossing actions. No one in that book could trust anyone else, and the ending had everyone living in a somewhat self-perpetuated hell where no one could trust anyone.

We noticed some common themes. The characters wanted to get out of the criminal business but somehow were kept in it, usually by their own choices. These choices were sometimese ones the characters didn't want to make, such as having to kill someone who came along at the wrong time and witnessed their guilt. Sometimes the characters wanted to choose the lawful path but just didn't have the strength at the moment of opportunity to get out when the gettin' was good. In The Getaway, they did want to rob the bank, but they didn't mean to kill anyone. Once the killing started, the characters kept hoping to get away from the killing, to where they could be free and stop the killing. In The Grifters, the guy kept saying he would stay with small con jobs and not get into a big extended situation, but he just couldn't help himself. He didn't even start saying it until he was already in over his head. In all, or most, of the stories, planned crimes snowballed out of control, and then characters were doomed.

Some of us had watched one or two of the movies from these books. The movies didn't seem to stimulate anywhere near as much discussion as the books; I guess the movies just weren't as good as the books! These movies have remained popular, as the books have, and there was even a remake of The Killer Inside Me released in June - oh, no, another example of our group choosing a book and finding out later that it is being made into a movie!

How many of these books could we take? Among 14 of us, we read 17 books, not including Dennis, who had read all or most of them. Some of us hadn't read any, and some had read 2 and 3. Some had tried and put books down before finishing, and some had felt that crime noir just wasn't worth the time it would take to read it. It's a testament to our group's open-mindedness that people will come to the meeting to listen and will freely admit to choosing to not read the book. We have all had the experience of being glad we read a book for the group that we wouldn't have normally read, but we also have our limits!

1 comment:

Atrox said...

I thought the film of After Dark My Sweet aligned to the book quite closely, though you probably saw into Kid Collins' mind more clearly in the book. Hope others were able to watch it. --dennis