The Killer Inside MeBy Jim Thompson (Quill; 1952/83)

There’s never been another first person psycho novel like this one, nor a character quite like Lou Ford, THE KILLER INSIDE ME’S disturbed protagonist. In the lexicon of Jim Thompson psychotics, Lou beats out strong contenders like A HELL OF A WOMAN’S Dillon, POP. 1280’s Nick Corey and THE NOTHING MAN’S Clinton Brown as the ultimate expression of Thompson’s ultra-stark, fatalistic worldview.

Lou is a sheriff in Central City, a sleepy Texas town where nobody would suspect that a seemingly upstanding officer of the law is also a schizophrenic murderer. Lou refers to his condition as “the sickness,” which as the novel opens appears to be under control–until Lou is summoned to curtail the amorous activities of Joyce, a small-time prostitute living on the outskirts of Central City. Lou winds up in a perverse sexcapade with Joyce that ends with Lou beating her to death and shooting one of her clients, who happens to be the son of a construction company big shot with whom Lou has a score to settle.

There are more murders to come, including that of a young convict who “hangs himself” in his cell shortly after Lou pays him a visit, and Lou’s hot-to-trot schoolteacher girlfriend Amy, who meets an even more painful end than Joyce. Eventually Lou’s pleasant demeanor can no longer hide his true nature, from his fellow townspeople or the reader, as his narration grows increasingly unreliable and hallucinatory (a prime reason the two film versions of this dark tale failed to do it justice).

There’s some truly shocking violence herein, related in Lou’s unerringly frank, hard-boiled vernacular, as well as moments of psychotic hilarity. The reaction of a drunk man upon seeing Amy’s corpse–he screams “Yeeeeeeee!,” apparently “a hell of a funny sound, like a siren with a slippy chain that can’t quite get started”–provides one of the novel’s standout moments.

Toward the end Lou points out that “In a lot of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He’ll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babble about stars flashing and sinking into a deep dreamless sleep.” Lou feels that such writing is lazy above all else, and “I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything.”

These views, it seems, were also those of Lou’s creator Jim Thompson, whose frankness and love of excess made him an ideal practitioner of the fifties-era pulp fiction in which Thompson made his name. But Thompson did far more with his novels, this one in particular, by convincingly exploring the darker areas of the human psyche in a manner that’s downright Dosoeyevskian in its wisdom and complexity, while still satisfying the down-and-dirty pulp aesthetic.