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. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to guess that Thompson wrote to get back at his father for his various failings, not to mention the torturous routine he himself had to endure to support his family. He created numerous wicked caricatures of his father. Both The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 are narrated by a slow-talking, joke-spinning West Texas deputy sheriff who is actually a serial murderer.
A bleak, menacing backdrop is a staple of noir fiction, but Thompson’s portrayals of Texas and Texans are so bleak and bitter that they veer into the category of surreal cartoons. As he explains in Bad Boy:
…Texans were distasteful—or so I soon convinced myself. I studied their mannerisms and mores, and in my twisted outlook they became Mongoloid monsters. I saw all their bad and no offsetting good.
Texans made boast of their insularism; they bragged about such things as never having been outside the state or the fact that the only book in their house was the Bible.
Interestingly, as Thompson’s narratives move westward, his tone mellows considerably. In Texas by the Tail, written in the mid-sixties, his con man narrator berates Houston for, among other things, its weather and its racial politics. He definitely favors Fort Worth over Dallas:
Neighboring Dallas started an evil rumor about its rival. Fort Worth was so rustic, the libel ran, that panthers prowled the streets at high noon. Fort Worth promptly dubbed itself the Panther City, and declared the lie was gospel truth.
Certainly, there were panthers in the streets. Kiddies had to have somethin’ to play with, didn’t they? Aside from that, the cats performed a highly necessary service. Every morning they were herded down to the east-flowing Trinity River, there to drain their bladders into the stream which provided Dallas’ water supply.
Thompson’s own sympathies ran along similar geographic lines. In 1926, after recuperating from his first stint as a bellhop, he hitchhiked to West Texas on a strange pilgrimage that took him to the very same oil fields and towns where his father had gambled away his family’s future. He spent the next two years laboring at backbreaking, dangerous jobs in the oil fields, working in gambling joints, briefly running a diner, and hoboing.
In Bad Boy, Thompson says that becoming a writer was foremost in his mind when he lit out for West Texas. “Oil Field Vignettes,” the first of several pieces he wrote while in the oil fields, was published in Fort Worth—based Texas Monthly magazine (no relation) in 1929. Ironically, the oil business—which had broken his father—provided the means for Thompson to reinvent himself.
It had already transformed Cowtown into Fort Worth, a major hub of the Texas oil business. The black gold that bubbled beneath their ranchland made West Texas cattlemen like Burk Burnett and W. T. Waggoner—who weren’t exactly poor before—into wealthy oil barons who funneled a great deal of their prosperity through the city that had always been good to them. Jim Thompson undoubtedly encountered many of these men while working as a bellhop, and certainly breathed construction dust as monuments to their success shot skyward: the W. T. Waggoner Building (810 Houston), oilman R. O. Dulaney’s cool art deco Sinclair Building (106 West Fifth), the Petroleum Building (also built by Dulaney, 611 Throckmorton), and others, all built between the teens and the early thirties.
While train travel isn’t a frequent fixture in Thompson’s novels, most of the grifters, gamblers, and other fun-seekers he hopped bells for came into Fort Worth via the old train stations that are just a short walk from downtown: the Santa Fe Depot (1601 Jones) and the Texas and Pacific Terminal (West Lancaster Street between Houston and Throckmorton). The former, built in 1899, evokes old Cowtown more than it does the Roaring Twenties, while the latter is a magnificent 1930 art deco structure that conjures up fedoras and big-city film noir. (To take a guided walking tour called “Hell’s Half Acre to Sundance Square,” contact Bill Campbell at 817-253-5909 or [email protected] A “Downtown Fort Worth Walking Tour” brochure is available from the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, 817-336-8791.)
In 1931 Thompson married Alberta Hesse, and before long he had found a job at the Worth Hotel (at Seventh and Taylor, where the expanded Fort Worth Club stands today). Thompson was working at the Worth when Will Rogers gave him a $50 tip for retrieving his car. Despite occasional nights like that and the fact that he was working 84 hours a week with no days off, he still wasn’t making enough to get by. Things only got worse as the Thompson household expanded to include three children born between 1932 and 1938.
In a bold stroke that, in hindsight, seems to have been preordained, Thompson turned from writing for oil trade journals to writing for true-crime magazines. A gentle, well-mannered soul who loathed violence and bloodshed, he churned out lurid stories for publications like True Detective, Daring Detective, and Startling Detective, managing to eke out a living and at the same time developing many of the stylistic techniques he would employ in his later novels. In 1935, lured by a lucrative offer from a true-crime magazine, Thompson moved to Oklahoma, ending the strange, bittersweet, and often brutal saga of his Texas years.
Once Thompson got to Oklahoma, his crime-magazine job suddenly fizzled out. In 1936 he obtained a position with the Oklahoma Federal Writers’ Project and not long thereafter was appointed its director. Also actively involved in left-wing politics, he gained many influential colleagues and admirers, including Woody Guthrie, who essentially agented Thompson’s book deal for Now and on Earth, published by Modern Age in 1942. A sort of semi-autobiographical protest novel—cum—psychological study, it met with mostly great reviews but lackluster sales. His first crime novel, however, Nothing More Than Murder (1949), struck a nerve with critics and the reading public alike.
As chronicled in Robert Polito’s excellent 1995 biography, Savage Art, Thompson’s writing career is the stuff of hard-boiled literary legends: He wrote like a demon between 1952 and 1954, turning out twelve explosive novels for Lion Books. Although he never really fit into the neat category of mystery or crime fiction, the trajectory of his life from 1942 until his death in 1977 was eerily similar to that of noir giants like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who also emerged from the ghetto of pulp fiction into mainstream American culture. Such men often wrote for two main reasons: because they needed the money and because if they didn’t write, their head would explode. They also tended to live hard and drink hard, and when they were hot, they were on fire.
One night during a recent stay at the Radisson Plaza, I lay in my bed sleepless, thinking about young Jim Thompson toiling up and down these halls where the Roaring Twenties howled with a uniquely Texan decadence, leaving a young man with a hangover that would last a lifetime. If these walls could talk, I wondered, what would they say? Maybe they would say some of the things that are said in the pages of Jim Thompson’s books. In Bad Boy he wrote:
It was a weird, wild and wonderful world that I had walked into, the luxury hotel life of the Roaring Twenties.…a world whose one rule was that you did nothing you could not get away with.
There was no pity in that world.…
At the end of Thompson’s life his declining health made it all but impossible to write—and no one seemed interested in his style of writing anyway, since all his books were out of print. Shortly before he died he told his wife, “Just you wait. I’ll be famous after I’m dead about ten years.” Wherever he is now, Jim Thompson must be enjoying a hell of a last laugh.