American writer Jim Thompson was known for his hard-hitting pulp novels, such as ‘The Killer Inside Me;’ ‘After Dark, My Sweet;’ and ‘The Grifters.’
Born in Oklahoma in 1906, Jim Thompson worked for the Federal Writers' Project before making waves on the literary scene. Novels such as The Killer Inside Me (1952) kicked Thompson's pulp reputation off with a fury, and critics found something transcendent in his words. He also plied his skills in the movies, working with Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah. Thompson died in California in 1977.
James Myers Thompson was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma, on September 27, 1906. Thompson’s family moved frequently as their income fluctuated, and Thompson sometimes worked to contribute to the household. While in high school, he held a night job as a bellboy at a hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, where he experienced firsthand the seamier side of city life.
Thompson bounced around, spending some time as a hobo, before enrolling at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln as a nontraditional student in 1929. At school, he wrote for the Prairie Schooner, a literary quarterly. The realities of the Great Depression, however, forced Thompson to drop out of college in 1931.
Federal Writers' Project
After leaving school, Jim Thompson—who now had a wife, Alberta, whom he had married in Lincoln—had little success as he tried to earn a living. He ended up back in Fort Worth, where he worked in another hotel. He also began to produce stories for pulp magazines such as True Detective.
By 1935, Thompson was in Oklahoma City, where he became affiliated with the Oklahoma branch of the Federal Writers’ Project. In that organization, he oversaw the publication of items such as Guide to Tulsa and a Calendar of Annual Oklahoma Events.
Thompson also joined the Communist Party. This membership meant that when state officials decided to purge the Writers’ Project of leftist influences in 1939, Thompson was forced out. Wanting to work in movies, a jobless Thompson soon picked up his family and moved to San Diego, California.
Hollywood did not immediately embrace Thompson, but California served as the setting for his first novel, Now and on Earth (1942). Its follow-up was 1946’s Heed the Thunder. Unfortunately, neither tome sold well—Thompson's precarious financial situation was exacerbated by his ongoing alcoholism and the frequent alcohol-related medical interventions he required.
However, Thompson continued writing. With Nothing More Than Murder (1949), he tasted success. Three years later, Thompson’s gritty style would show up in force in The Killer Inside Me, a landmark book that looked out from the mind of a killer with chilling results. The novel was hailed by critics and remains Thompson’s most well-known work.
The Killer Inside Me was also the beginning of an extremely productive period for Thompson. He quickly published several novels, including A Swell-Looking Babe and A Hell of a Woman, both of which came out in 1954.
What followed later would only strengthen Thompson’s reputation. Books such as After Dark, My Sweet (1955), The Getaway (1959), The Grifters (1963) and Pop. 1280 (1964) impressed critics and readers alike.
Despite the problems caused by his ongoing alcoholism, Thompson eventually found work in the movies. Most notably, he contributed to the scripts for Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). Thompson also wrote for television.
Two of Thompson's books were turned into films during his lifetime: The Getaway (1972) and The Killer Inside Me (1976).
Death and Legacy
After a lifetime of hard living and heavy drinking, Thompson died at the age of 70 on April 7, 1977, in Los Angeles, California.
Thompson's writing continues to captivate readers and inspire filmmakers. Since his death, several other movie adaptations have been made of his work, including The Grifters (1990), which was nominated for four Academy Awards.