WHEN JIM THOMPSON DIED in Los Angeles in 1977, his career was almost as dead as he was. Not one of his more than two dozen books was in print. His last important screen credit had been for Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, twenty years earlier. But during the past decade and a half, Thompson has blazed a comeback trail from oblivion to mainstream popularity and recognition as a unique voice in American literature. Almost all of his novels are back in print, including the ultimate noir novel, The Killer Inside Me, one of the scariest ever written. Even Stephen King thinks so.
Generations of filmmakers, from Orson Welles to Quentin Tarantino, have admired his work. Among his eight books that have been made into movies, the best known are probably The Getaway, filmed in 1972, and The Grifters, which was nominated for four Academy awards, including best adapted screenplay, in 1990.
Too bad Jim Thompson isn’t around today to enjoy his amazing comeback. In a perfect world he’d be the star attraction at this month’s Texas Book Festival. At least half of Thompson’s books are set in Texas, and all of them are informed by his experiences here during his teens and twenties, between 1919 and 1935—times that were quite likely the worst of his life.
He was born James Myers Thompson in 1906 in Anandarko, Oklahoma, where his father, James Sherman Thompson, was the county sheriff. The following year, his father fled to Mexico and parts unknown for two and a half years after being implicated in a murky scandal involving financial improprieties. The family moved around Oklahoma and Nebraska for years before relocating to Fort Worth in 1919. For the next four years the senior Thompson dabbled in numerous schemes and ventures, including drilling wildcat oil wells in West Texas, but by 1923 the family was destitute. His son chronicled this chapter of his life in his first book, Now and on Earth : “Pop went broke and his was the irremediable brokeness of a man past fifty who has never worked for other people.”
Things were booming in Texas, however, and sixteen-year-old Jim Thompson was able to get a job working nights as a bellhop at Fort Worth’s Hotel Texas, at 815 Main Street. Rubbing up against and running errands for gamblers, gangsters, con artists, rich oilmen, and lonely females in a big-city hotel gave Thompson plenty of material for his future novels. One example is the swindle known as “the twenties” that figures in The Grifters; Roy Dillon (played by John Cusack in the film) uses sleight of hand to get $20 of change for a $1 bill. Thompson learned that trick and a slew of others at the Hotel Texas, a thinly disguised version of which is featured in numerous Thompson novels and is the focal point of all action in his hotel novels, like Wild Town and A Swell-Looking Babe.
Thompson also befriended notorious bank robber and gangster Airplane Red Brown, who made a big impression on him. Brown would serve as the inspiration for the protagonist or a major character in many of Thompson’s novels, including Airplane Red Cosgrove in Recoil, Allie Ivers in Bad Boy and Roughneck, and professional thief Doc McCoy in The Getaway.
During the wild and woolly oil boom and Prohibition years, bellhops at places like the Hotel Texas didn’t just carry luggage for the guests; they also procured bootleg booze (Thompson used to carry a couple of extra half-pints in his socks), hookers, and drugs. A bellboy who was killed while scoring drugs for a guest is at the center of the short story “The Car in the Mexican Quarter,” one of Thompson’s few private-eye stories: “The Lansing is one of the biggest hotels in town, but I knew that it stood for a lot of dirty work from its employees. One suicide a year is plenty for a big hotel and the Lansing had one almost every month.”
Things have changed in Fort Worth since Thompson lived there. The Hotel Texas is now the Radisson Plaza, and the wildest thing that went on while I stayed there recently was a convention of Seventh Day Adventists. The fifteen-story luxury hotel was completed in 1922, and despite having been extensively remodeled inside, it still exudes a sense of grandeur and history. President John F. Kennedy spent his last night there, in room 850.
To be fair, the Hotel Texas never had a lock on decadent behavior in downtown Fort Worth. It was located in a part of town known as Hell’s Half Acre—a concentration of brothels, saloons, gambling halls, and like enterprises that had catered to cowboys and cattlemen back when Fort Worth was a major stopover on the Chisholm Trail.
Thompson’s father used to regale him with stories about the infamous lawmen and outlaws he’d known, many of whom spent time sampling the delights of places like Two Minnies, where customers in the downstairs bar could view the naked prostitutes prancing about upstairs through the glass ceiling. Two Minnies was long gone, but there were still plenty of holdovers from the days of Hell’s Half Acre when Jim Thompson walked these redbrick streets. In his autobiographical novel Bad Boy, Thompson recounts a day he spent with his Grandfather Myers in downtown pool halls, arcades, and burlesque houses:
…following lunch we went to a penny arcade.
Pa had brought the bottle with him, and he became quite rambunctious when ‘A Night With a Paris Cutie’ did not come up to his expectations. He caned the machine.
Great story material, but working seven nights a week while attending Polytechnic High School devastated Thompson’s health. Whiskey, cocaine, and three packs of cigarettes a day kept him going. After two years of this hellish routine, he suffered a total physical and mental breakdown at the age of eighteen.
In more than a few Thompson novels the protagonist’s spiral of doom and dissolution is propelled by an Oedipal streak a mile wide.