Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Tale of Two Citizens: Oklahoma Crime Writers Todd Downing (1902-1974) and Jim Thompson (1906-1977)

"A future writer of crime fiction and westerns could do worse than turn-of-the-century Oklahoma."

             --Robert Polito, Savage Art (1995)

the native ground of crime writers Jim Thompson and Todd Downing
Both Todd Downing, a largely forgotten though once admired (and happily now reprinted) detective novelist, and Jim Thompson, the today much-toasted titan of twisted and terrifying noir fiction, were born within just a few years of each other in that quintessentially American space that soon was to become the state of Oklahoma (Thompson was born to the west at Anadarko in Oklahoma Territory, in the blue patch in the southwest corner of the map above, Downing to the east at Atoka in Indian Territory, in the purple patch in the southeast corner of the map above).

Jim Thompson's nightmare tale of 
wasting, sucking nihilism
These two men, sons of the nascent Oklahoma of a century ago, had some interesting similarities. Yet they also were markedly distinguished from each other in notable ways, which helps to explain why two crime writers from one time and place produced such very different books within their specialized genre.

Changes in critical standards helped create a situation where Jim Thompson became more famous after death, with all his books reprinted by a major imprint, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, while Todd Downing languished forgotten and out-of-print for decades, only recently brought back into print by a little press called Coachwhip (eight Downing detective novels, all but the rare first one, are now available at Amazon; the first will be available as well soon; also see my review of Downing's third mystery, Vultures in the Sky, here).

After his death Thompson's art in all its uncompromising bleakness was enthusiastically endorsed by intellectuals and filmmakers, helping to win him much posthumous attention from a larger audience (for example, the 1990 film The Grifters, based on a Thompson novel and true to the author's aesthetic spirit, was nominated for four Oscars).

Thompson may have been a writer ahead of his time, but the times finally caught up with him and his dark vision of life (and death).

Noir is where it's at for many modern readers of crime fiction.  To call a work "noir" is to bestow it with genre-transcending literary significance (for my part, I've taken to calling Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None noir--and I'm not really joking either).

Todd Downing
a more life-affirming writer
Yet Todd Downing's life and body of work has unique and impressive qualities that should make him better known than he is.  This is something I talk about in my new book, Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (just out; see here).

Now that Downing's work has been reprinted, perhaps posterity, having embraced Jim Thompson with the greatest ardor and affection, will afford Todd Downing at least a few chaste yet fond caresses. 

Nearly twenty years ago, the biography of Jim Thompson, Savage Art (1995), was published by Robert Polito to much critical acclaim.  This 543-page tome received both the National Book Critics Circle Award and an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.*

*(incidentally, Polito's main competition at the Edgars was Doug Greene's wonderful biography of the great Golden Age mystery writer John Dickson Carr, a book surely beloved by many readers of this blog)

Let Robert Polito describe Jim Thompson's twisted crime fiction (Savage Art, pp. 7-10):

Buried under the shabbiest conventions of pulp fiction--all but three of the twenty-six novels he published between 1942 and 1973 were paperback originals--and picking at the banality with offhand brilliance, his books pursue the most debased imaginative materials....

Crime fiction, however violent or macabre or sordid, ordinarily--if paradoxically--constitutes a comforting and conservative genre.  Whether the prose is soft- or hard-boiled and the author is Agatha Christie or Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L. Sayers or James M. Cain, most crime novels tend to borrow their trajectory from (for all the obvious differences) classic comedy [Polito goes on to argue that this comedy-derived trajectory involves the containment of "a demonic impulse" and "a calamitous action"]....

Thompson's boldest writing about criminals transgresses, even inverts, the consolations of the genre....he overturns the formal and thematic resolutions of the crime novel for a more disruptive, devastating ambiguity. In The Killer Inside Me, for example [Thompson's most famous novel, originally published in 1952 ]....both Thompson's hero and Thompson's society achieve not a new life but a terrifying nothingness.

The nods to hard-boiled conventions do not so much toughen Thompson's novels as humanize them--they're all we have to hang on to in the downdraft.  Everything else is wasted, sucking nihilism that's as unsparing as the most lacerating rock'n'roll...and as final as snuff film.

savage tales
My own experience with Thompson's writing is described in Going to Hell in a Samples Case, my 2011 Mystery*File review of the author's nightmarish tale A Hell of a Woman (1954).  I disliked The Killer Inside Me so intensely it put me off Thompson for some time.  I still would never want to make a steady diet of his bleak and twisted work, but I can see the power in it that many find so compelling.

From what particular hell does such a dark vision arise?

"Crime fiction," writes Polito, "offered Thompson a scaffolding to stage his obsessions and inward dramas, and to transform his chills and fevers into vivid literature."

Polito argues that Thompson's obsessions--which he jarringly deems "as American as a serial killer"--arose from the circumstances of the novelist's life in the American Midwest in the first part of the twentieth century.

Jim Thompson's father, James "Big Jim" Thompson,  was the sheriff of Caddo County, Oklahoma when young Jim was born, at Anadarko, the county seat.

Big Jim Thompson was descended from Pennsylvania Quakers, though the family had become Baptist by his time.  His father Samuel had been a successful farmer, but he suffered severe reverses in the 1870s and with his family fled the home in Ipava, Illinois to avoid prison.  "Like a fairy tale in reverse," writes Polito, "the Ipava mansion was transmogrified into a two-room log and sod cabin in Wahoo, Nebraska."

sod house, North Dakota, 1895

In Nebraska Jim Thompson taught school and became a principal but in 1900 he sought more exciting work in law enforcement.  In 1902, he became sheriff of Caddo County.  He also married Birdie Edith Myers of Nebraska, who apparently was one-fourth Cherokee (she also had Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite ancestry).

Jim's and Birdie's son, Jim, the future author, was born in 1906, in the family apartment, right over the Anadarko jail cell block.  This made a good story for a future crime writer.

Sheriff Thompson's success was sadly short-lived.  In 1907 an audit of the sheriff's department disclosed nearly $5000 in missing funds.  Embezzlement accusations were made.  Big Jim, like his father Samuel had before him, fled with his family "in the middle of the night, under threat of imprisonment."

The future author grew up in less than ideal, less than stable, circumstances, variously in Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma.  His much-absent father worked a myriad of jobs, and sometimes had money, but more often did not.

Birdie Thompson and her children were often packed off to live with her father and mother, the latter of whom was a devoutly religious individual who "never left the house except to attend Sunday services at the First Christian Church and to witness evening prayer meetings."  Young Jim Thompson hated his grandmother intensely.

Thompson did have fondness for a Nebraska uncle, a successful grocer, who introduced him to the delights of reading fiction: Lewis Carroll, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle and many more. But more often there was poverty and rootlessness, wearisome work as a bellboy in Fort Worth and a manual laborer in Texas oil fields, heavy smoking and drinking.  Thompson by fifteen had already shot up to his full height of six feet, four inches.  But he was rail thin and looked distinctly malnourished.

Texas oil field worker, 1930s

And there was always his embittered resentment of his father.  Polito sees much of Thompson's fiction as fueled by the boy's rage against the father, who failed his family and finally impotently "receded into dullness and paralysis."  Thompson's novels The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280, writes Polito, "roil with Oedipal anger: popular, smooth-tongued sheriffs unmasked as psychopathic killers."

In 1929 Jim Thompson enrolled at the agricultural college of the University of Nebraska, where, majoring in farm journalism, he evinced an interest in and talent for creative writing, but he dropped out of college two years later.

Now married, he moved to Oklahoma City, where he maintained a tenuous existence as a freelance writer.  During this time he wrote sensational true crime articles for True Detective.

Two big events took place in Thompson's life in 1936: he joined the Communist Party and found employment with the Oklahoma's Federal Writers' Project, one of the many New Deal programs started during the Depression-wracked decade of the thirties.

One of Thompson's colleagues on the Project was the future famous writer of Westerns Louis L'Amour.  At this time L'Amour also wrote book reviews--mostly of Westerns, appropriately enough--for what Polito calls the "lively" literary page of the Oklahoma City newspaper the Daily Oklahoman (Todd Downing reviewed crime fiction for this paper).

Louis L'Amour (center) and Jim Thompson (right)

Eventually Thompson would become director of the Project, but antagonisms arising out of his left-wing sympathies eventually would result in his resigning and leaving the state in 1940, in the hope of finding greener pastures in California.

Thompson would publish his first novel, a mainstream tale portentously entitled Now and on Earth, in 1942, his first crime novel, Nothing More Than Murder, in 1949.  In the 1950s he would become one of the key figures in the transformation of the mystery tale into the crime novel, but his signal importance was not realized at the time.

How did the life of Todd Downing compare and contrast with that of his crime writing Oklahoma contemporary Jim Thompson?  Did their paths ever cross in the 1930s?  We will see in Part Two!


  1. Great article,will check Downing.Have read nearly all Thompson and am a great admirer of his. The biography is indeed amazing.Many thanks again !

  2. Thanks so much, Michael, I'm really pleased you enjoyed it. Late in the Downing book phase I started reading Polito and was so interested in the Oklahoma connection with Downing and Thompson that I decided I would have to do a separate piece on it somewhere. My blog came to mind!

    Thompson certainly had a fascinating, if rather sad in many ways, life. If he had had better fathering (and grandmothering), if he had avoided poverty, he would have been happier, but would he have produced his crime fiction?

  3. Great to have your Downing book and the novels hand in hand ! I will order them now .
    Thompson is quite an experience,and I feel that his books are not so much entertainment
    but they provide a pretty intense ( insane ? ) view of ( the darker side of ) the human psyche, and you are right,it is clearly
    autobiographically inspired. Would he have written that if he wold have had a different life ? Would Schubert
    have written his Winterreise if he would have been a happy guy ? We'll never know.
    Thanks again for your fantastic blog ! ( And congrats to your amazing Humdrum book,I sincerely hope the second part
    with Wade etc will some day be published. BTW I re-read Connington's last book and enjoyed it in a weird way , reminded me of some late John

  4. Michael,

    started Thompson's Recoil, hope to blog soon.

    Much thanks for the comments on the books. I think my Wade/Coles work will be published as a book this spring by Coachwhip. Stay tuned!