Thompson's Town is the craziest patch of real estate west of the Potomac River.
Robert Maguire handled the cover work on this edition of Jim Thompson's Wild Town, which hit book racks in 1957. The pricing on this varies greatly. All we can say is please don't pay $450.00 for it, like one vendor was recently asking. We got ours—the same edition—for $15.
Set in the fictional boomtown of Ragtown, Texas, the tale's hard luck ex-con anti-hero Bugs McKenna lands a job as a hotel detective, but he's been funnelled into the position by the corrupt local deputy, apparently to serve nefarious—though unknown—ends. Is he to spy on the hotel owner? Participate in some shady plot involving a guest? Murder somebody? It could be anything, because the deputy who orchestrated the hiring is none other than Lou Ford, the main character of Thompson's 1952 tour de force The Killer Inside Me. If you haven't read it, long story short, he's a psychopath.
Trouble doubles when Bugs accidentally karate chops the hotel accountant out a window. The death was unwitnessed and is ruled a suicide—for the moment. Ford suspects foul play, but Bugs feels in the clear. Then someone starts to blackmail him, someone who says they were in the closet and saw the killing. Who is the blackmailer? Can Bugs outwit them somehow? He isn't that bright—a type Thompson specialized at writing—so his efforts to manage his difficulties are haphazard at best.
But maybe Bugs is brighter than he seems. He'll need to be, pitted as he is against Thompson's iconic Lou Ford, but in the end a woman may turn out to be his direst foe. That's not a spoiler—the cover text suggests that a femme fatale is pulling the strings, but even Bugs doesn't know who because he spends the book troubled by three. All of this makes for plenty of reading fun. Wild Town is no Pop. 1280—our favorite Thompson so far—but it's diverting enough. Another recommended effort from a deft architect of chaos and criminality.
You play with fire you're bound to get burned.
We're in reliable literary territory today—Thompson territory. A Hell of a Woman was originally published in 1954, with this Pyramid edition coming in 1962. The story resembles James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, as an amoral opportunist is driven by lust to plan a murder. Who is the “hell of a woman” from the title? There are two candidates. The main character Frank “Dolly” Dillon love-hates his wife, so maybe it's her. But on the other hand, it's for his young mistress that he plots to kill an old lady and steal her stash of $100,000, so it's probably her. $100,000 is an unlikely amount of money ($967,000 in today's dollars) to be stashed in a spinster's house, and of course there's a reason for that, but you'll have to read the book to find out. That will involve descending into the troubled and self-destructive mind of yet another Thompson anti-hero, but you won't regret it—this is a nice effort from one of the kings of pulp.
Always get out while the getting is good.
Jim Thompson's thriller The Getaway was made into a movie twice, the first time in 1972 with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, and the second time in 1994 with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Both versions opted to change the thrust of Thompson's tale, so if you've seen either movie reading the novel might provide an interesting experience. It's a crime novel with several deeper themes. For example, Thompson expresses social isolation in the starkest terms, such as here, when writing about a group of poor country folk:
Their existence was centered around existing. They had no hope of anything more, no comprehension that there might be anything more. In a sense they were an autonomous body, functioning within a society which was organized to grind them down. The law did not protect them; for them it was merely an instrument of harassment, a means of moving them on when it was against their interest to move, or detaining them when it was to their disadvantage to stay.
Against this hostile backdrop the two main characters, Doc and Carol, are—unlike in the movies—unambiguously amoral people, a couple who are certain only that the world is institutionally corrupt, and that their only hope for survival is each other. What starts as a standard heist-and-flight tale becomes an allegorical descent into hell, complete with images borrowed from various religious myths. This makes the latter third of the novel something far weirder than expected going in, but the ultimate idea of crime as a soul-killer comes across crystal clear.
You really can't go wrong with Thompson. While The Getaway is perhaps not as top flight as Pop. 1280 or some of his other books, it's still one to fit into your reading schedule at some point. It was originally published in 1958, and the above edition came from Signet in 1959 and features a nice orange cover from the incomparable Bob Abbett. If you're interested in seeing him at his best, check the small cover collection we put together here.
Population 1280. Correction—1274.
Purely by coincidence, we also read a novel that's the dark twin of Never Say No to a Killer. The book was Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280, and in this one the main character is a self-described moron, and so is everyone else. At least it seems that way at first. Or maybe it's kinder to say they're simply unpretentious and earthy. Check out this exchange between two lawmen from adjacent counties:
“Pre-zactly!" Ken said. “So I'll tell you what to do about them pimps. The next time they even look like they're goin' to sass you, you just kick 'em in the balls as hard as you can.”
“Huh? But don't that hurt awful bad?”
“Pshaw. 'Course it don't hurt. Not if you're wearing a good pair o' boots.”
“I mean, wouldn't it hurt the pimps?”
Once we're immersed in this chaw-and-cornbread milieu, one character emerges to be considerably more cunning than the others. The aphorism applies again. Though he doesn't consider himself to be smart, somehow he's more than up to the task of conniving his way through multiple nefarious schemes to reach his ultimate goals, which consist of getting laid and not working too hard as sheriff.
The book is set during the Great Depression and its portrait of man-woman and white-black relations is both horrifying and hilarious. Thompson's approach is partly satirical, but the actual ideas espoused by his characters are deadly serious, as well as historically grounded, such as in a conversation about whether the county's black residents have souls. The consensus is they don't. Why? Because they aren't really people.
It's a pointed commentary on the distant Jim Crow south, yet the very same question of black humanness festers at the core of America's 2017 problems. If you doubt it ask yourself how the same observers who have limitless sympathy for a white rancher shot after initiating a standoff with federal lawmen somehow have none for unarmed black men shot in the back, or why rich white ranchers who refuse to pay their federal grazing fees are perceived as persecuted, while a poor black man trying to survive by selling loose cigarettes is not.
Critic Stephen Marche once described Pop. 1280 as “preposterously upsetting,” which is as apt a description as we can imagine. The idea of who's really human, what is sexual consent, what are the obligations of lawmen, and what is evil are played for laughs by Thompson, but always with an incisive twist that lets you know where his sympathies lie. Yet as shocking as the book is to read, it's addictive and consistently entertaining, particularly when various characters dispense their tabacky soaked wisdom…
… about women: “I'd been chasing females all my life, not paying no mind to the fact that whatever's got tail at one end has teeth at the other, and now I was getting chomped on.”
... about the mentally challenged: “You probably ain't got as long a dingle-dangle as him—they tell me them idjits are hung like a stud hoss.”
… about learning: “I mean I caught him reading a book, that's what! Yes sir, I caught him red-handed. Oh, he claimed he was only lookin' at the pitchers, but I knew he was lyin'.”
We recommend Pop. 1280 highly. The Gold Medal paperback you see above with its Robert McGinnis cover art is expensive, but numerous later printings are available at reasonable prices. Just go into the reading with your psyche girded. You'll root for the main character Nick Corey, but he's merely one of the most charming bad apples in a town that's rife with rot. That rot leads to the reliable pulp staples of adultery, betrayal, and murder many times over, but in the most unique and enjoyable way.
Let's trade. You give me what's in your hand and I'll give you what's in my pants.
The cover for this Lion Books edition of Jim Thompson's The Golden Gizmo is as quirky as Thompson's prose. The title of the book has a double meaning. A gizmo is a special ability, a gift. If you had a sense for knowing when someone was bluffing at poker, you'd say, “My gizmo told me he had nothing.” Or if you had a knack for meeting beautiful women, you'd say, “My gizmo kicked in as soon as I walked into the party.” The main character's gizmo is the ability to sniff out scenarios that lead to profit, which comes in handy in his work as a freelance gold buyer. But there's a literal gizmo here as well—a priceless gold watch that he steals by accident. In the end both gizmos cause him no end of trouble, and the question is whether he can get out with his hide intact. The story is enlivened by the main character's fiery alcoholic femme fatale wife Elaine. Strange, but pretty good. The strikingly pretty cover art is uncredited, sadly.
The magazine that cried wolf.
For Men Only was launched in New York City by Canam Publishers Sales Corp., but changed ownership several times over the years, and was even acquired at one point by pulp kingpin Martin Goodman. This particular issue is from September 1956 and contains art from Rudolph Belarski, Frank Cozzarrelli, Elliot Means, Ben Thomas, Victor Olson, and Ken Crook. Actually, it’s a miracle all the art is credited. It doesn’t happen as often as it should in these magazines. The stories accompanying those art pieces range from espionage to wilderness adventure, including non-fiction from Jim Thompson about “America’s first murderer,” a man named John Billington who came to the New World on the Mayflower. After making trouble for years in Plymouth Colony, he was finally hanged for the slaying of John Newcomen. We checked, and Billington did in fact exist. His execution in September 1630 was the first of a colonist—but certainly not the last.
And another story caught our eye. It discusses an incident on the set of an Italian movie in which a wolf got loose and tried to attack actress Silvana Mangano. According to For Men Only, co-star Guido Celano rushed the wolf, grabbed it and threw it into the air, whereupon a rifle-toting crew member nailed it like he was skeet shooting. We’re calling bullshit on that one. A while back we wrote an article about guaranteed hunt farms and were able to see some rescued gray wolves up close. They’re big—about three feet high. European wolves are even bigger. No movie production would use one. Also, we don’t picture fifty-two-year-old, five foot three Guido Celano heaving a wolf into the air like a sack of laundry. No, it was just a dog—a German Shepherd, looks like. But it’s a good story, appropriate publicity for a movie—Uomini e lupi, aka Men and Wolves—that was still months from its premiere. We have about twenty scans below and an inexhaustible supply of magazines still to share.
It’s not their fault—it’s a jean-etic disorder.
In pulp and sleaze fiction there are many types of bad women—vamps, golddiggers, black widows, you name it—but women who wear jeans, or even jean shorts, are destined for a special brand of trouble. Some of these women are already corrupt while others are merely at the gateway, but they all end up in the same place—Calamity City, daddy-o.
Have shotgun, will travel.
This rare promo piece for Steve McQueen’s 1972 thriller The Getaway was produced for the film’s run in Japan in 1973. Based on a novel by Jim Thompson, co-starring Ali McGraw, directed by Sam Peckinpah, written for the screen by Walter Hill, and scored by Quincy Jones, The Getaway delivers on multiple levels, as does this poster.
Nursed by the worst.
Acclaimed author Jim Thompson was an alcoholic, and his characters were all hard drinkers. The Alcoholics is set in a detox ward called El Healtho run by a doctor facing financial struggles. Keeping the clinic open may mean compromising his ethics; letting it close means abandoning the patients he’s tried so hard to cure. It’s a bit like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, complete with black humor, bizarre patients, and a sadistic nurse (nicely depicted in the cover art above). It’s atypical Thompson, but is perhaps a more important read than many of his other works, considering drink eventually hastened his death. If abusing alcohol is truly a type of slow-motion suicide, as some believe, then The Alcoholics is Thompson’s note.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1917—First Jazz Record Is Made
In New Orleans, The Original Dixieland Jass Band records the first ever jazz record for the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York. The band was frequently billed as the "Creators of Jazz", but in reality all the members had previously played in the Papa Jack Laine bands, a group of racially mixed performers who helped form the basis of Dixieland while playing under bandleader George Laine.
1947—Prussia Ceases To Exist
The centuries-old state of Prussia, which had been a great European power under the reign of Frederick the Great during the 1800s, and a major influence on German culture, ceases to exist when it is dissolved by the post-WWII Allied Control Council comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union.
1964—Clay Beats Liston
Heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, aged 22, becomes champion of the world after beating Sonny Liston, aka the Dark Destroyer, in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. It would be the beginning of a storied and controversial career for Clay, who would announce to the world shortly after the fight that he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
1920—The Nazi Party Is Founded
The small German Workers' Party, or DAP, which was under the direction of Adolf Hitler, changes its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party. Though Hitler adopted the socialist label to attract working class Germans, his party in fact embraced mainly anti-socialist ideas. The group became known in English as the Nazi Party, and within the next fifteen years expanded to become the most powerful force in German politics.
1942—Battle of Los Angeles Takes Place
A object flying over wartime Los Angeles triggers a massive anti-aircraft barrage
, ultimately killing 3 civilians. Initially the target of the aerial barrage is thought to be an attacking force from Japan, but it is later suggested to be imaginary and a case of "war nerves", a lost weather balloon, a blimp, a Japanese fire balloon, or even an extraterrestrial craft. The true nature of the object or objects remains unknown to this day, but the event is known as the Battle of Los Angeles.
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