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Philip Jenkins

Pulp Fictions

Jim Thompson and the sins of the father.

One of last year's most controversial films was The Killer Inside Me, an adaptation of Jim Thompson's 1952 novel. The film closely followed Thompson's original in depicting an atrocious series of murders from the killer's own perspective, and some critics complained furiously about the film's prolonged depictions of violence, its resemblance to "torture porn." British critic Jenny McCartney wrote that in the film's sadistic treatment of women, director Michael Winterbottom proved himself "a nasty blockhead"; still, beyond question, Winterbottom was being faithful to Thompson's voice.

The violence in Jim Thompson's books often is problematic, but it is essential to understanding the central themes that drove his work, which are acutely spiritual and moral. Few other writers better understood the nature of personal depravity, or so clearly mapped the path to damnation. It would be sad if the violence issue alone prevented readers from exploring the work of a writer who may be the best twentieth century American novelist few people have heard of. However bizarre the analogy might have sounded in his lifetime, Thompson today can properly be read alongside Flannery O'Connor, while French critics freely compare him to William Faulkner.

I exaggerate when I suggest that Thompson is unknown. His crime thrillers have a lively cult following, and several have been turned into films, the best known of which are The Getaway (1972) and The Grifters (1990), while the recent Killer was the second adaptation. In 1995, Robert Polito published a superb biography of Thompson, Savage Art. Even so, it's not unusual to find well-read Americans with a taste for contemporary literature who have never heard of Thompson, or who consign him (unread) to the distant fringes of genre crime-writing. They should take a look at Thompson's best novels, which are also the ones that most frankly explore spiritual themes: The Killer Inside Me, The Getaway (the book, not to be confused with the diluted film ...

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