By Jim Thompson
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, November 1991
After watching Michael Winterbottom’s film adaptation of The Killer Inside Me, I had a desire to reacquaint myself with Jim Thompson’s world.
Savage Night came out originally in 1953, just a year after The Killer Inside Me, and so you could say that it occupies the same psychic space.
A hit man, one Carl Bigelow (there’s a meaning to the name, naturally), visits a small town, his goal being to bump off a stool pigeon before he can testify at a trial. Oh, only there’s one snag. It has to look like an accident.
A banal premise, certainly, but Thompson gives it a bit of zing by making the killer a dying man, or at any rate a man of depleted resources. Carl is often running on empty: ‘What there was of me was all right,’ says Carl. ‘But there wasn’t much of me anymore.’
The killer finds a kind of love, an echo of empathy, with a disabled girl named Ruthie. She has his lack, she walks the same path. And there are a number of plaintive, intense and confusing moments for Carl (the mistrust of his own motives toward the close of Chapter 17 is a beauty; someone’s been messing with his mind deep on this one). Thompson never makes life easy or straightforward for his characters and was probably not so gentle with himself either.
The end of the book is quite edgy and strange, referencing a subplot involving a writer in Vermont who might well be Thompson himself (Thompson appears as a character in another of his novels, Nothing More Than Murder).
You will care for at least three of these characters: Carl, Ruthie, and Kendall. And one – The Man, an underworld bigwig – is as sinister as Hell. Maybe it was he who inspired Pynchon’s spiel in Gravity’s Rainbow (‘The Man has a branch office in each of our brains…’), maybe not.
Savage Night is a tragic and intense story with that quality of stock characters gone weirdly awry that led to the author being called ‘the dime-store Dostoyevsky’. It continues on where The Killer Inside Me ends.