Given we are focusing on writing in noir106 this week, I wanted to share some of the gems I have come across in Jim Thompson‘s 1953 novel Savage Night. And given I still have 8 stars of assignments to complete, I created a new writing assignment so I could kill two birds with one post. I’m only thirty pages into the book, but I was totally sold after the first paragraph:
I’d caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York — three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man — hadn’t helped it any. I felt lousy by the time I arrived in Peardale. For the first time in years, there was a faint trace of blood in my spit.
Babes and booze, tuberculosis, and some nebulous “The Man” all in the first three sentences. And then followed upon soon with this:
I started coughing a little, and lighted a cigarette to quiet it. I wondered whether I could risk a few drinks to pull me out of my hangover. I needed them. I picked up my two suitcases and headed up the street.
Nothing like curing your cough with a cigarette, and chasing away your hangover with a few more drinks. By the 1950s hardboiled fiction (and film) were starting to congeal around a number of tropes. What I like about Thompson’s writing is he doesn’t shy away from the genre as pulp. He embraces it, and turns it into a kind of popular poetry. Take the following analogy when describing the sadness of the decayed, lifeless town of Peardale:
There was something sad about it, something that reminded me of bald-headed men who comb their side hair across the top.
This calling out of the dreaded combover as a way to describe a rundown town is not purple prose, it’s a refreshing, quotidian example of the pathetic. What’s more, it’s quite funny. And by the end of the first page we have a bit of out main character’s history, as well as glimpse at the job ahead:
I’d have given everything I had just to be back at the filling station in Arizona.
But it couldn’t be that way. It was either me and The Man’s thirty grand, or no me, no nothing.
Despite the tropes and seemingly formulaic approach to the genre, solid hardboiled fiction immediately pulls you into a depraved world of violence, moral ambiguity, personal loss, and some awesome moments. Like, for example, when the main character (hard to call him a protagonist) gets into it with the shoe salesman for calling him Sonny:
“Sure,” I grinned. “It just kind of gets my goat to be called sonny. You probably feel the same way when people call you fatty.”
And there’s the sexual innuendo that characterize the prose. When talking about his target—a bookee who agreed to testify against The Man to get out of jail—he comments on his washed up affairs, particularly those with his wife:
All the jack he’d made in the rackets was gone. The state had latched onto part of it and the federal government had taken another big bite, and lawyers had eaten up the rest. All he had was his wife, and the dope was that he couldn’t get a kind word out of her, let alone anything else.
It’s all in there, and we didn’t need to go past page 5. If you are into hardboiled fiction, Jim Thompson comes highly recommended, and I would actually recommend you start with The Killer Inside Me, possibly his best book.
I’m a big Jim Thompson fan, having discovered him long before I moved to Oklahoma. Back when I taught English Comp. and Lit. courses, I used to teach Pop. 1280, one of the great examples of the crime novel (moving toward complication as opposed to resolution). Thanks for reminding me of Savage Night.
Thanks for the Po. 1280 recommendation, that is my next read. Loving his stuff, it’s like stumbling upon a whole new world of noir.
Pop. 1280 was also adapted into a film set in West Africa – Coup de Torchon or Clean Slate