Highsmith and Thompson – A Thriller Think-Piece

‘…and hopefully it won’t be months before I’m back, with a proper review this time.’

Oh, Past Me. We like to joke here on this blog, we like to have fun. In all seriousness, what with working from home and being on my laptop all day, writing my script (on my laptop) and writing posts for three online play-by-post RPGs I’m part of as a hobby (also on my laptop), the thought of sitting in front of my screen for even longer to write up book reviews has been daunting, to say the least. Hence why I last posted here in March. I felt inspired, however, to make a post today because of a book I recently finished – although I’m afraid this isn’t a proper review. Rather, this is more of a think-piece on a couple of crime/thriller classics. These books are as follows:

Everyone in the small town of Central City, Texas loves Lou Ford. A deputy sheriff, Lou’s known to the small-time criminals, the real-estate entrepreneurs, and all of his coworkers–the low-lifes, the big-timers, and everyone in-between–as the nicest guy around. He may not be the brightest or the most interesting man in town, but nevertheless, he’s the kind of officer you’re happy to have keeping your streets safe. The sort of man you might even wish your daughter would end up with someday.

But behind the platitudes and glad-handing lurks a monster the likes of which few have seen. An urge that has already claimed multiple lives, and cost Lou his brother Mike, a self-sacrificing construction worker who fell to his death on the job in what was anything but an accident. A murder that Lou is determined to avenge–and if innocent people have to die in the process, well, that’s perfectly all right with him.

In The Killer Inside Me, Thompson goes where few novelists have dared to go, giving us a pitch-black glimpse into the mind of the American Serial Killer years before Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, in the novel that will forever be known as the master performance of one of the greatest crime novelists of all time.

The psychologists would call it folie á deux

‘Bruno slammed his palms together. “Hey! Cheeses, what an idea! We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on a train see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?”‘

From this moment, almost against his conscious will, Guy Haines is trapped in a nightmare of shared guilt and an insidious merging of personalities.

***

Strangers on a Train was first published in 1950, and The Killer Inside Me was published two years later. They’re both classics of the thriller and crime genres, especially Highsmith’s novel which was adapted into one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films. I’m a huge fan of the film, and still remember when I first watched it years ago at school as part of a film module – although watching Psycho, with some people needing to close their eyes or even leave the room during the infamous shower scene, was admittedly more memorable. If I remember rightly, there’s a film adaptation of Thompson’s novel out there somewhere, but I won’t be looking to watch it in a hurry – and to be completely honest, if I’d read the book first instead of watching the film, I wouldn’t have been eager to look out Strangers on a Train either. What could have caused me to say such blasphemous things? These books, with their secrets, lies, oh and don’t forget the multiple murders! – were boring.

OK, OK, before you come at me with the torches and pitchforks, allow me to explain.

I’ll start with Highsmith’s novel first, since it was the first of the two I read. I’d been meaning to read it for awhile – I loved the film adaptation, the novel is a classic of the genre, and I’ve never actually read any of Highsmith’s books before. High time to rectify that, if nothing else. I knew the novel would be different to the film in some respects, but I hadn’t realised quite how different – Guy Haines is an architect in the book, rather than a amateur tennis star, for example, and as for whether or not he goes through with Bruno’s plan… well, you’d have to watch the book or read the film to find out, I don’t want to spoil either! Another big change came at the end, in the manner of a particular character’s death. The scene in which this character dies in the film was, in fact, taken from the climax of another novel! I wasn’t disappointed in these changes, as I knew to expect some differences between the original novel and its adaptation, but what I was disappointed in was how the premise felt squandered. It’s a gripping premise – two strangers meet and agree to swap murders, but what if only one of them actually goes through with it? It makes for a thrilling film, but as a book it was slow – one review I came across stated that it felt like a gripping short story, squeezed into 280 pages.

I completely agree with that statement – several times I considered putting the book down and not picking it back up again. The focus would often stray from the main plot to Bruno and Guy’s various meditations on life and their place in it which, while relevant to what was happening, rather took me out of the action. Take this passage, for example:

‘If he believed in the full complement of evil in himself, he had to believe also in a natural compulsion to express it. He found himself wondering, therefore, from time to time, if he might have enjoyed his crime in some way, derived some primal satisfaction from it – how else could one really explain in mankind the continued toleration of wars, the perennial enthusiasm for wars when they came, if not for some primal pleasure in killing? – and because the capacity to wonder came so often, he accepted it as true that he had.’

Highsmith’s style was so difficult to decipher at times that, at one crucial moment, I didn’t realise that a particular character had been killed! Whether that was just her way of writing, or the way the death had to be described because of the time in which the book was published, I can’t say – all I can say is that I had to re-read that particular page several times before I realised that yes, that man had in fact been shot – and his death was crucial to the plot. Crucial plot elements being so difficult to miss didn’t do the book any favours, nor did its frequent wanderings from the main plot for long passages of introspection, or the dual protagonists doing things like travelling to Mexico or making martinis which didn’t serve the main action in any clearly discernible way.

I’m finding it difficult to put into words just how slow and dull the book was without making my own words slow and dull – I hope! – but suffice to say that it was, and if I were ever to revisit the story again it would be through Hitchcock’s film. At least the book introduced me to the concept of the caviar sandwich – maybe I’ll make one of those when I do my rewatch.

I had so dearly wanted to love Strangers on a Train and I hadn’t, so I hoped my experience with The Killer Inside Me would be better. I hadn’t actually heard of the book before, but when purchasing another Stephen King book to add to my collection it was recommended alongside his work. On the back of my copy of the book, King himself is quoted as saying: ‘My favourite crime novelist – often imitated but never duplicated – is Jim Thompson’, while on the front cover Stanley Kubrick describes the book as ‘chilling and believable’. I found the book to be neither, and I can’t help but wonder why. Was it the writing style again?

‘We’re living in a funny world kid, a peculiar civilization. The police are playing crooks in it, and the crooks are doing police duty. The politicians are preachers, and the preachers are politicians. The tax collectors collect for themselves. The Bad People want us to have more dough, and the good people are fighting to keep it from us. It’s not good for us, know what I mean? If we had all we wanted to eat, we’d eat too much. We’d have inflation in the toilet paper industry. That’s the way I understand it. That’s about the size of some of the arguments I’ve heard.’

Thompson’s book felt a little more fast-paced than Highsmith’s, but not by much. Like Highsmith, Thompson made some excellent points about human nature, and the underbelly of America in particular, especially relevant today considering the fact the protagonist is a murderous police officer… But I felt nothing. Lou didn’t feel monstrous, he felt flat. As the book was written from his perspective, it made sense that there would be a lot of introspection, that it wouldn’t be all action, a murder a minute – and that’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But as with Strangers on a Train, The Killer Inside Me dragged – and again, on multiple occasions I considered putting it down and not picking it back up, no matter what King and Kubrick said.

All of this is to say, it feels as though I’m missing something. King is one of my favourite authors and he loves Thompson’s work. Surely I should have loved it too? I enjoyed the film adaptation of Highsmith’s novel, why did I struggle my way through the original? Both are right up my alley – true crime, mystery, thriller type books – so why was I not thrilled? Why was I bored? Was it because I was reading them in 2021, not the early 1950s when they would have been more shocking? Was it to do with the writing styles of both authors? Did I go into both of these books with exceedingly high expectations, hence why they were so spectacularly dashed? Maybe it was all of these reasons and more, I can’t say for certain. I’ve written this entire post trying to riddle it out, and I’m still no closer to the answer – I suppose it’s a good thing I’m not a mystery writer myself. Unfortunately, all of these confused feelings about these books I thought I would love means I won’t be having a stab at another of Thompson or Highsmith’s anytime soon.

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