Jim Thompson – Savage Night, book review

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I have just finished reading Jim Thompson’s novella Savage Night. I have come late to him, and I think I picked up his name as a mention from my favourite contemporary writer Willy Vlautin. As I have said in recent postings about Thompson’s ‘quips’, I couldn’t get interested in his novel The Killer Inside Me, but I have enjoyed this book immensely.

On those quips: they are actually a rarity. There is ongoing humour in the story, but the comic quips that I likened to though distinguished from Chandler are a very small part of his style. The humour is in the untrustworthy narration, though I don’t entirely agree with the tag of him, in the literary sense, as an ‘unreliable narrator’, which is a specific attribute/stylistic feature. For me it is more of a tease. The protagonist Carl Bigelow [Charlie ‘Little’ Bigger] is a hired killer and therefore whilst it is easy to assume he doesn’t have a noble moral code it is also equally certain he cannot be trusted. Indeed, much of the narrative in this book is concerned with his ongoing subterfuge as he inveigles himself into the life and work of the small town of Peardale. So of course he is unreliable.

Coming new to Thompson, as I have said, I undertook some quick Wikipedia research about him and was interested in the reported observation by the writer R.V. Cassill that many more famous crime writers, including Raymond Chandler, didn’t ever write a book within miles of Thompson. I don’t know the full context of this quote, and it is suggested that it refers specifically to the harrowing directness of Thompson’s writing [and I really only know SN], but it isn’t a comparison I would readily accept with respect to Chandler. Thompson’s writing is often intentionally ‘pulp’ in its style – and some of that directness is for effect only – and there is a macho attitude in references to any women, this too a requisite of pulp fiction. Sexuality is more explicit than it is with Chandler, but with Thompson too there is still a coyness about it, a reflection of the similar times in which both authors were writing, but I do think Thompson’s always lacks the inherent grace there is with Chandler’s similar representations.

That said, the sexual shenanigans of Carl are described as blunt realities, and even occasionally as complex with respect to the disabled Ruth, but more crucially they do underpin his tough-guy persona that we both believe and doubt. We doubt because of his stature – he is five foot tall – and his physical atrophying throughout the story: he wears false teeth and contact lenses to disguise his unhealthy appearance, and he is ill with tuberculosis.  We believe because we have first-hand evidence of his ruthless killing, but also because one of the most powerful parts of the story is a short section that describes the impact of him losing his temper, both in the first person revelation of his inner thoughts and feelings as they erupt and explode, and in the description of his outward behaviour in a crowd of people as this is happening. It is a genuinely tense moment.

Throughout the novella we are as readers kept guessing about Carl’s full intentions in his commitment to kill, a job he has been instructed to carry out by The Man who is a mysterious but seemingly omnipotent criminal boss, and because Carl too is constantly second-guessing the role, if any, of other characters with whom he lives, works and makes love because they may also be in the employ of The Man. This becomes a paranoia that begins to diminish Carl’s confidence, a confidence already seen as part sham [for example, his appearance, including the wearing of elevator shoes] but one that has equally allowed him to dupe and convince others of his good nature, including the town sheriff and his wife – and some of the best comedy in the book is reserved for the playful relationship that develops between Carl and Bessie.

These are the intrigues of good writing. Without spoiling the ending, but having to make this important point about the novella’s close from a storytelling point of view, there is a stunning gothic and surreal injection as the book draws to a close. Thompson probably hasn’t sustained a pulp style merely to have its simplicities exploded and exposed by the rich intensity of the novella’s final brisk chapters, but this is nonetheless an effect. I want to say more, but to do so would spoil for anyone who hasn’t read, so don’t read the next paragraph!

In part a metaphor for Carl’s disintegrating body but also grip on reality, and in part simply a creative impulse from Thompson as writer – something that seems artistically compulsive – the closing narrative is disturbingly outlandish but also ambiguous. It is also harrowing, and this seems to be, from what I have read about his wider work, a fundamental feature. Throughout the whole story there has been little inclination to this frighteningly impressionistic content and writing style, apart from one episode when Carl first beds Ruth, and once again as readers we have been teased, this time by an abrupt and brutal transformation in describing.

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