This one comes to us from Jay Mullinix.

Call it a bibliophile’s guilty pleasure. I have long harbored an affinity for the mass-market paperback originals which appeared in the years following World War II. Published by such houses as Dell, Lion, Ace, Popular Library, and — most famously — Gold Medal, these novels were small enough to slide easily into a back pocket, cheap (around 25¢), short (usually topping out at 50,000 words), plotted at a tommy-gun pace, and sprinkled with a generous dashing of violence and sex. Fronted by lurid cover art featuring rough, gun-wielding men and provocative, garment-needy women, they filled turnstile racks at drugstores, newsstands, bus depots, truck stops, and train stations across the country and dominated the fiction market up through the mid-1960s.

Sure, many of the pulp authors were just working hacks. But there were also writers of considerable talent (John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, and Malcolm Braly were just a few) who used the pulp form to probe serious questions of moral complexity and delve into psychological studies of human behavior — and who did so with prose as well-formed as anything to be found in the more respectable world of literary fiction.

Of all the paperback original authors, none have achieved the cult following combined with the critical notice and respect that have accrued to Jim Thompson. The man labeled by literary critic Geoffrey O’Brien as “a dime-store Dostoevsky” was born in 1906 in rural Oklahoma, the son of a violent and abusive county sheriff. Thompson escaped home as a teenager and spent two decades as a drifter, working as a hotel bellboy, railroad hand, oilfield hand, factory worker, bill collector, nightclub bouncer, newspaper reporter, and professional gambler. A melancholic and rueful man, he also became a heavy drinker and battled alcoholism his entire adult life.

Thompson eventually found his vocational footing as a writer, publishing 25 novels between 1949 and 1973. His work is uneven, but in his best novels (a short list being The Grifters, The Getaway, Savage Night, The Killer Inside Me, and Pop. 1280) he produced some of the best crime fiction ever written, and — with The Killer Inside Me and especially Pop. 1280 — two novels that can stand alongside the best American literature of the mid 20th century.

Christians may be tempted to dismiss Thompson’s books because of their violence and sex. I would urge them to reconsider. Like Flannery O’Connor, Thompson used the sensational as a sort of shock-treatment to jolt readers awake to their own moral torpor and hypocrisy. As such, his stories are shot through with questions and themes that are fundamentally spiritual and existential. 

The Killer Inside Me, probably Thompson’s most famous book, is narrated from the perspective of Lou Ford, a small town Texas deputy and everyman. Lou is well-read, intelligent but self-deprecating, polite, willing to help a neighbor, diligent in his work, and a generally affable guy. He also happens to be a psychopathic killer. In fact, it is Lou’s very affability that renders him so frightening. We like Lou and when he says that he likes other people, or wants to help them we believe him; he never appears to be feigning. The power of Thompson’s stories is in part due to this special knack for causing us to identify with and care about protagonists who are by turns both genuinely likable and disturbingly psychopathic. We find ourselves laughing with them, feeling for them, moved by their moments of genuine kindness or vulnerability, enjoying their company. And then we watch them commit acts of such brutality it makes us feel as though we’ve had a wire brush scraped across our eyes.   

Nowhere does Thompson do this more effectively than in his masterpiece Pop. 1280, which of all his books grapples with religious themes most explicitly. The setting is the small Southern town of Pottsville (“Pop. 1280” the sign announces by the road into town), where lip service to neighborly, church-going values masks a community roiling with racism, lust, corruption, and hypocrisy.

The narrator, Nick Corey, is at first glance a buffoonish county sheriff whose inner musings and colloquial descriptions of people and events are often uproariously funny. Yet Nick moves through the story cutting a grisly swathe of violence. He functions as a sort of avenging angel of death unleashing judgment on a community where there are no innocents. Nick’s job, as he sees it, is “to coax ‘em into revealin’ theirselves an’ then kick the crap out of ‘em.” Of course Nick is just as corrupt and self-serving as anyone else in Pottsville. “What I loved was myself,” he admits, “and I was willing to do anything I god-dang had to to go on lying and cheating and drinking whiskey and screwing women and going to church on Sunday with all the other respectable people.”

The novel’s title is a nod towards the corruption of the entire town and beyond. Pottsville can be read as a microcosm of the whole of humanity, a searing confirmation of the psalmist’s indictment that “there is none righteous, no not one.” In both Nick and the townsfolk, Thompson brilliantly manifests the propensity we have as fallen beings to condemn our neighbors while excusing ourselves. “Practically every fella that breaks the law has a danged good reason, to his own way of thinking,” says Nick, “which makes every case exceptional, not just one or two.”

We prefer to think that evil is something “bad people” do, and that these bad people are easily recognizable, or that at least they would be if we could just figure out the right screening process. We see a mug shot on the news and say “Oh, he looks like a child molester, like a mass shooter, like a serial killer, like a bad person.” Or we think of evil as that perpetrated only by those on the opposite side of the aisle. We describe such people as “inhuman” or “deplorable,” descriptors that gives us the relief of distance. The guise evil wears is, of course, always that of someone else. I’m not like those evildoers, we think.                 

Thompson knew this way of thinking was delusion. He knew that evil wasn’t something that “bad people” do; it’s something all of us are capable of.

Thompson’s clear perception of human brokenness, however, can only take us so far. Self-understanding, good as such a thing is, is not redemptive unless joined with repentance and faith in the crucified and risen Christ. Thompson’s gift was in depicting humanity’s need for salvation and our inability of ourselves to realize it, but perceiving the possibility and source of that salvation was sadly something that escaped his vision. 

Even so, his books are powerful tales which transcend their low-brow appearance. Pascal wrote that diversions are things we take up to turn away from ourselves. How ironic that Thompson’s pulp fiction – the supreme diversionary genre of literature – should be a place where we are given so clear a mirror in which to see ourselves.