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2015 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 21, 2015 Leave a comment

In 2015, for the second consecutive year, I read more than 100 books. A few of these were in conjunction with my work as an English teacher (indeed I read a couple of these books aloud to students), but the vast majority were for my own personal reading. Around a third of these were crime fiction, with the rest being literary fiction, non-fiction and the odd SF novel. This year I revisited the works of J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, all of whom are authors who were important to me in my twenties. I completed my reading of the works of Pat Barker, Mikhail Bulgakov and Derek Raymond, and I’m one book short of completing everything by Peter Temple, too. I read multiple titles by the likes of James Lee Burke, J. M. Coetzee, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vicki Hendricks, Cormac McCarthy and Larry Watson. Authors that I read for the first time in 2015 include Julian Barnes, James Darnielle, Candice Fox, Christopher Isherwood, Henning Mankell and Ron Rash. I didn’t enjoy all of these books and authors equally, but all have something to recommend them. My author of 2015, however, was definitely Jim Thompson. I ended up reading twelve of his books. What follows is my top ten reads for 2015 with brief description and links to Goodreads.

Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop

It’s a sequel to Frankenstein, set in the US in the first half of the twentieth century. Oh, and the monster plays baseball. He can really hit them out of the park.

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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much of what happened in this slim volume. I do remember, however, than the writing was exceptional.

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Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

I’ve read about ten of Coetzee’s novels now; this is yet another outstanding piece of work from the Nobel Prize winner.

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Liza’s England by Pat Barker

Pat Barker is an exceptional writer but in general I prefer her WWI books to the rest. This one, however, a bildungsroman set in England in the early twentieth century, is very powerful and far superior to the recently-released Noon Day.

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Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

This is a fascinating portrait of life in late-Weimar Germany told through the ‘camera’ of ‘Christopher Isherwood’. I’ve read four Isherwood titles recently, but this was my favourite of them.

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A State of Denmark by Derek Raymond

Probably the best of Raymond’s non-Factory novels, this is part Orwellian dystopian England, part rural Italy. Fascinating.

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The Hidden Files by Derek Raymond

Raymond’s memoir is part autobiography and part thesis on what he calls the ‘black novel’. Rambling but ultimately rewarding for authors of crime fiction.

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Savage Night by Jim Thompson

The first Thompson novel I read happened to be one of his very best, and it precipitated a book-buying-bender on my part. This is a slim and savage little crime novel that I greatly admire.

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A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson

I especially liked this Oedipal (and partly autobiographical) tale of Dusty Rhodes, hotel porter. It’s another Thompson stunner.

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Pop 1280 by Jim Thompson

I’m saving the best for last. This is by far my favourite book of 2015; it’s a caustic, outrageous comedy noir set in Hicktown, USA at the turn of the twentieth century. This has to be the very best of Jim Thompson and that’s really saying something. Go read this book immediately!

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This World, then the Fireworks: My Jim Thompson Adventure

September 30, 2015 Leave a comment

jim thompson books

I read a lot of books, around 100 per year, and perhaps once a year I find an author I haven’t previously read who really gels with me. In 2014 it was Mikhail Bulgakov. 2013, Raymond Carver, 2012, Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott. My author of 2015 is Jim Thompson, 20th century American noir author. Pictured above is my recently-assembled collection of Jim Thompson novels, about 50% of his total output (and reputedly the better half). Hardcore, a collection of three titles (The Nothing Man, The Kill-Off and Bad Boy) arrived yesterday, and I’ve read everything else pictured here. Ideally I’d collect all the Vintage/Black Lizard editions, as I particularly like those, but financial necessities have meant that I got whatever was cheapest on Ebay, Better World or Abebooks. The only one of these I bought from a physical bookstore was Savage Night, the book that started it all for me. I enjoyed all of these titles to greater or lesser extents. My favourite novel is Pop 1280, but I also loved Savage Night, A Swell-Looking Babe and Polito’s biography, Savage Art. 

I’ve also watched three films based on Thompson’s films in The GriftersThe Killer Inside Me (2010) and Farewell, My LovelyThe Grifters was far and away the best of these. I have Peckinpah’s The Getaway to watch, as well as Coup de Torchon (based on Pop 1280). I haven’t read the books in Hardcore yet, although having made a brief start on The Nothing Man I feel sure I will enjoy that one. Fireworks is an interesting if uneven volume. I was a little disappointed with “This World, Then the Fireworks” to be honest, but I loved the early work and especially “An Alcoholic Looks at Himself”.

So my question to you, Jim Thompson fans of the internet, is what else of his is worth pursuing? My reading of the biography and various bits and pieces on the internet persuaded me to pursue these books and not the others, but perhaps you have a soft spot for a particular Jim Thompson work not mentioned here? I’m given to understand that the earlier biography is superfluous, but how do I know?

A note on costs. Now that the poor old Aussie dollar is only worth about 70 US cents (and falling), I’ve had to shop around for books a bit more. For several years I was only paying $10-12 dollars for new books from Book Depository, but it seems those days are gone, not only because of the exchange rate but also them hiking up the prices a fair bit. So I am back to secondhand books again, like I was before Book Depository ever came along. These 14 books cost me in total $133, or $9.50 per book, which is about 50% of what they’d have cost new (those in print, anyway).

Anyway, it’s been a great ride. If I manage to finish Hardcore within the next couple of weeks, then I’ll have read 11 JT novels, 1 collection of miscellany, 1 biography and 1 autobiography in about three months. That ain’t bad….

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Exit Screaming, Jim Thompson

August 14, 2015 2 comments

I’d vaguely heard of American crime writer Jim Thompson (1906-77), but only because one of his novels, Pop 1280, was featured on a list of Southern Gothic novels on Goodreads recently. I meant to grab a copy at some point, but I intended to sink my teeth into Ron Rash first. On a recent trip to Melbourne, I came across a Thompson novel in a discount bookstore. Five bucks. The title was Savage Night, the publisher was Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and, when I read the first few chapters, I was in love.

Turns out that Black Lizard reprinted about fourteen of Thompson’s novels in the nineties, and I wanted ’em all. Most are out of print in these editions now, so I’ve had to content myself with a mixture of Black Lizards and Crime Masterworks. But I love the covers and designs of the Black Lizards best. My second Thompson novel was probably his most famous, The Killer Inside Me, and while I liked it plenty, I thought it a little tame compared to modern crime fiction.

Next came After Dark, My Sweet, which I enjoyed well enough but found even less remarkable, at a distance of 60 years since first publication. This is considered to be in Thompson’s upper echelon, but it didn’t quite do it for me.

But if my third outing into the world of Jim Thompson was a slight letdown, my fourth, Pop 1280, was the best yet. Similar in character and structure to The Killer Inside Me, this ‘last great novel of Jim Thompson’s career’ would be a great novel in anyone’s career. Dark, twisted, vulgar, revolting, and yet riproaringly funny, Pop 1280 may well be among the best satirical noir novels even written.

And that’s where I’m up to. I’ve also just finished reading Robert Polito’s outstanding biography, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. I have no fewer than seven further titles enroute in The Grifters (I recently watched and very much enjoyed the film), The GetawayA Hell of a Woman, A Swell-Looking Dame, The Nothing Man, The Kill-Off and Bad Boy (these last three in the Hardcore omnibus), so I expect to be revelling in the dark, dark world of Jim Thompson for some months to come. I binge on authors like this when I can, which isn’t all the time as I don’t always feel overly enthusiastic about devouring (like Nick Corey) every single available morsel. And I haven’t promised, not even to myself, to read every word of Thompson, but this enthusiasm reminds of how I felt about Philip K Dick, and J G Ballard, and William Burroughs, and Harry Crews, and …