Writing the Schizoid : Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me


All the Eskimos we saw talked a great deal. A rule of Eskimo life is that a man must not keep any thought to himself—for if he does so he will go mad.

J.C. Carothers, “Culture, Psychiatry, and the Written Word”


The Killer (Voice) Inside Me

            review of The Killer Inside Me, novel by Jim Thompson

            an audio-tape produced by Book of the Road, approx. 3 hours of listening.


            Of course it is different with a book.  The words are always your own.  No matter how absorbing the story, no matter how compelling the narrative, you make it yours as you read; it is familiar, safe, and you always have the necessary control over it.  You can always put a book down, busy yourself with something, like living.  The novel on tape, especially a mystery novel, and especially a first person narrative, and especially this one, is different.  With this one you surrender your control. You busy yourself with listening, taking a chance on the living.

            Jim Thompson's classic thriller The Killer Inside Me was first published in 1952, re-released in paper in 1983 by Quill a division of William Morrow.  The book has been widely acclaimed. Stanley Kubrick calls it, "Probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered."  Listening to the novel on tape, and you need to slip on your earphones for maximum effect, should convince you that Kubrick understates the power of Thompson's novel as it appears on tape.  You don't simply encounter the criminal mind.  The killer inside is now inside you.  And the effect is chilling and believable.

            The story is simple.  It is told, or rather written down, by Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff of a small West Texas town, Central City [emphasis on central].  Ford has the appearance of a rube, but he's self-aware, reflective, and complex in ways that only a writer can be.  And he is a killer.  He says, inside your head his voice says, "The bums [bums, more of that later. Is every word a clue?] always size me up for an easy mark."  But the mark, the mark that went down easy on the sheet of paper, now is the trail left by the killer's voice as he describes how he gave the bum a mark, a burn made with his cigar when the bum asked for something to warm him up.  You see, you hear, this killer is always willing to give you the literal answer to questions you dare to ask of him.  Just like later, he will mark the bum, ass, of the women he kills; beating, physical and verbal, is his sickness.  The killer talks in clichés and that's the nature of truth in the oral culture.  As Walter Ong demonstrates in Orality and Literacy, for the memory to retain thought essential to the culture it was necessary for the speakers to think memorial thoughts:  "Everything's fair in love and war"; "Everyone talks about the weather, but ...." And the most revealing, as Ford says to the father of the boy he will have to kill, the truth at the heart of this darkness, is the seemingly enigmatic, "The boy is father to the man."

            Lou Ford speaks the truth, but no one listens; people think they already know. They hear only what they want to hear.  But Ford continues because he knows that the spoken language of clichés is necessary if he is to survive, if they [the Other] are to survive.  As tribal people are aware, words are weapons.  Ford talks to disarm the other: "Striking at people that way is almost as good as the other, the real way."  [There is yet a difference between the word and what it signifies.] Ford keeps violence under control with homespun truths, until he breaks out, out of the confines of [the communal bonds of] orality.  He becomes pathological; he becomes a writer giving us the narration of his criminality. [Why this release?]  He meets his muse.  She un-leases his language, allows him to be a writer, connects him to the real way:  "The way I'd fought to forget--and had almost forgot--until I met her."

            Ford eventually kills her, Joyce Lakeland.  His source of inspiration is nature, this combination of water and earth, and he the ford, the crossing, even, to stretch this a bit, the metaphor, meaning "to bear across."  All those he kills are in some sense natural, oral people, "primitives."  The easy going unaware talkative Elmer (elm, her) he shoots in the mouth [Of course: the Pupil in Ionesco's The Lesson, “I have a toothache.”]  The young outcast, rebel Johnnie Pappas, Ford cuts at the place of his spirit, his oral expression; Ford hits him in the throat, knifing his hand into the boy's "windpipe."   His longtime lover Amy Stanton he kills because she is the writer, the insincere, unaware writer he could never be, a mockery of his own unrealized genius.  A/my, the school teacher, he beats with his fists; he knocks the air out of her.  And her final act is to try to reach into her purse for a letter she had written for him expressing her un-dying love. He always kills the source of his inspiration.  But all those deaths are necessary for him to write down his story.

            The producers of this taped novel, read masterfully by Denis Arndt and Brenda Hubbard, have eliminated the killer-as-writer, the killer as schizophrenic, the writer as schizophrenic.  The book develops the character of Ford in terms of his need to hide his genius, his ability to read several foreign languages, his ability to effortlessly perform calculus problems, his deep knowing of the classics of the psychology of the split personality, our psychology, the psychology of writing.  In the taped version the character is simplified; and, that is as it should be [Ong on round and flat characters], for now the character is developed through voice, the killer's voice inside you.

            Thompson's written novel is lean with a fully realized narration. Unlike similar novels written about the same time, Albert Camus' The Stranger and Jose Camilo Cela's The Family of Pascual Duarte, there is no need for framing devices, or fictive memoirs to establish the narrative's authenticity.  But the taped novel is even leaner and just as fully realized.  It is as lean as the writer, Lou Ford whose mouth is a weapon: "Lean and wiry; a mouth that looked all set to drawl”. [The puns are everywhere.].  It is lean and mean enough to tell the full story of the struggle of the narrator with his own inspiration, his struggle not to take the easy way. [The way of the Con.] The con-way. [Reference : Melville's The Confidence Man.]

Ford avenges the murder of his step-brother by the representative of big capital, Chester Conway-- Chest/er, the jester, the man whose heart is replaced with money. The taped novel develops the conflict; conflict as Walter Ong reminds us is the stuff of the [agonistic] oral world.  In the taped novel it is Ford on the side of the outcasts, the outsiders, all those "that wanted so much and got so little."  All of those against the Con/ways, capitalists, "the smug ones, the hypocrites, the holier-than-thou guys" and the Law. Ford knows the law from the inside: [he says,] "I found out long ago that the place where the law is apt to be abused most is right around a courthouse."

            The written novel develops Ford the rounded character, just as we would expect, do expect from writing.  But no matter whether the novel is experienced through the writing directly and interiorized with your own voice, or whether the novel is experienced through the voice through your earphones and the killer's voice echoes inside you and becomes your own, Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me is superb fiction.  It is a writer's novel, a continual language play, and it is deadly serious.  The novel ends with Ford stabbing his muse.  He kills that he may write.  Do you understand why?  Unlike Conway and the lawmen in his pay, do you get it?  He needs to ask us.  The writer never knows the audience directly, but he needs to ask to confirm that you are really there, that he is not totally isolated.  Get the point? he asks, "Because they hadn't got the point.  She'd got that between the ribs and the blade along with it."