Adrian McKinty (right) keeps on telling us that he’s not going to start blogging seriously until later this year – his latest post is entitled ‘A Portrait of the Artist with a Spray Can’ – because he doesn’t have the time right now. Happily, he does find the time to write the occasional piece for Crime Always Pays, the latest of which concerns itself with Jim Thompson’s hinterland of Oklahoma. To wit:
A terrific new voice in American noir, Victor Gischler, sets his novels in rural Oklahoma. Now, I don’t know Victor, but I like his books (one of his titles is SHOTGUN OPERA, which tells you a lot about the fellow’s panache) and I don’t know a lot about Oklahoma either, except that from about the age of 15 onwards I always wanted to go there.
You probably think it was because of the musical. No. In fact the musical was a deterrent. When I was a kid, every Sunday afternoon my father used to play ‘Surrey With The Fringe on Top’ in waltz time on the piano. That’ll cure you of any love of Rodgers or Hammerstein or Howard Keel. When I’d think about Oklahoma! I’d get a feeling of existential dread.
I read THE GRAPES OF WRATH around then too, which is about Okies heading west, but obviously I was too young to really get that book as I remember becoming turned on by the ending, something that’s not supposed to happen.
Nah, it wasn’t Broadway and it wasn’t John Steinbeck; what had gotten me into Oklahoma was Jim Thompson (right). Like a lot of kids I’d done the progression from fantasy to science fiction to detective books to noir. But where Raymond Chandler wrote about the lives of the rich and famous, and Hammett gave us the stylish and the cool, Jim Thompson wrote about blue collar scuzzballs pulling scams on one another in hell-hole one horse towns all across west Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle.
Jim Thompson’s sad sack characters were defeated before they even started the book. Their schemes were distinctly small time: ripping off a gas station here, or a drug store there for sums like twenty bucks or even a few quarters. These weren’t sly confidence men, or brilliant detectives or cool-under-pressure gumshoes, these were skeevy bums with three day old beards in patched clothes, who smelled bad. They were hobo criminals, low-lives, grifters.
Grifters: I hadn’t heard the word before reading Jim Thompson’s novel of the same name but I quickly got the idea. If you’ve seen The Sting or even Stephen Frears’ movie version, you’ll have acquired an inflated notion of the grift. A grifter isn’t about the big con, the big gesture, the big score. He’s small time and he knows it. A grifter is self made. He was born poor, he has no skills, no family, no luck, but he (or quite often she) his two important talents: he’s just a little bit smarter than the average guy and he has absolutely no qualms about taking your money.
Thompson’s grifters, thieves and sharks, sometimes became sociopaths, most famously in THE KILLER INSIDE ME, which I won’t spoil if you haven’t read, but let’s just say that the sheriff isn’t exactly Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men (and the fact that Thompson’s father was a disgraced Oklahoma county sheriff, gives the story an added frisson).
Thompson’s books were exciting, edgy and cool and made me long for America. Right after I’d gotten off the boat - actually an Aer Lingus DC-10 - and started work as a ridiculously under-qualified bouncer in the Bronx (I’m 5’ 10” and back then about 158 pounds) I began planning my Oklahoma trip.
Once I’d saved enough my wife and I drove out from New York.
We pulled an all-day shift until we got to Tennessee and then spent some time in Cormac McCarthy’s (and Quentin Tarantino’s!) Knoxville. Then it was the usual Graceland, Beale Street tour before jumping the Big Muddy and heading straight for Anadarko, my Mecca of all things America.
Anadarko wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
There are few Native Americans in Jim Thompson’s books but Anadarko is a majority Indian town. It’s a rough place, with a lot of bars and a lot of drunks. I grew up in Victoria Estate in Carrickfergus which had more than it’s fair share of wife beaters, violent nutcases and alcoholics, but Anadarko might give Carrick a run for its money. Locals call it Dodge or Darko or The Bad. As a town Anadarko didn’t really know what to do with itself. It once had oil, but it didn’t have it anymore and what it did have seemed to be pubs, fast food restaurants and more pubs.
I expect it’s changed a bit since I was there in the ’90s; it’s probably filled now with Apache and Kiowa heritage centres and the like. But back then you could see where Thompson was coming from.
On our trip we discovered that the great American poet John Berryman was also from Anadarko. Inversing me, Berryman was obsessed by Ireland and came to Dublin looking for inspiration; unfortunately the inspiration didn’t stick and only a couple of years later he committed suicide by jumping off the Minneapolis Washington Avenue Bridge. Berryman once wrote a poem for my wife’s aunt Amy, Dream Song 113, which contains the line: “The body’s foul, cried god, once, twice, & bound it—for many years I hid it from him successfully—I’m not clear how he found it,” which sums up carnality in Thompson’s books pretty well. In Thompson’s world relations between men and women are complicated, distrustful, poisoned, and sex is grubby, hurried, desperate, yet somehow very, very important.
Berryman’s stock has risen since his death, Thompson’s rose, fell, rose again and fell again. He’s probably better known through his screenplays (The Killing, Paths of Glory) and the movies made from his books – The Getaway, The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, Coup de Torchon – but his best books are better than any of the films. You can read all of them in about two weeks, none are very long and some are distinctly more interesting than others. Memorable ones for me are SAVAGE NIGHT, POP. 1280, THE KILLER INSIDE ME and THE GRIFTERS.
And if you’re going to make a pilgrimage to Anadarko, it’s an easy drive from Oklahoma City. Unless you’re going there in a surrey, when it might take a little longer. – Adrian McKinty
Adrian McKinty’s FIFTY GRAND will be published by Holt later this year. Meanwhile, THE DEAD YARD gets the ‘wee review’ treatment from Gerard Brennan over at Crime Scene Northern Ireland
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.