By Bud Elder
While Oklahoma is ranked at a position that is, at 28th, exactly half of all American states in respect to population, it seems as though the former territory produces from its citizenry a disproportionate number of noticeably successful careers in any particular field of endeavor one might choose. Sooner state music, for instance – from “Take Me Back to Tulsa” to “Red Solo Cup” – has captured the imaginations of dancing fools around the world. Name a discipline, from rocket science to Wall Street regulation, filmmaking or “foodies,” and you’ll find an Oklahoman smack dab at the forefront.
What of Oklahoma writers, you ask? They include wordsmiths from Ralph Ellison and M. Scott Momaday to current master authors such as Bob Burke and Billie Letts, along with her Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright son, Tracy. From these pens and keyboards come forth organic stories and true escapades that successfully meld both heart and head, providing a unique perspective on life in general, told through both a fluid and readable prose, deep characterization and a genuine insight into the human spirit.
There is, of course, another type of writer, one who has explored the human spirit and found it to be exceedingly bleak and nasty – these are the authors whose tomes are found under the “Crime” banner at any local bookstore. Books with this particular designation are liberated from the confines of classic literature – true heroes are scarce, if one is deployed at all; the plotting is filled with double-crosses, con jobs, honey traps, heists, stickups and robberies, gunfights, fistfights and knife fights, clean getaways and dirty crooks and, of course, murder, performed in any number of sordid ways and means.
Turn to page one, students, and enjoy reading two of the world’s most influential practitioners of these dark arts – Jim Thompson and Ross Thomas. While each has his own particular style, presentation and individual assessment of everyday folly, they share the blackest of Oklahoma hearts and have communally entertained millions as they aim for the bottom of the bottomless well of humankind’s very existence.
Now imagine that you are the lone person in a small town railroad station, circa 1952 or so, about to catch the overnight train to some off-the-map burg hundreds of miles away. You look in the paperback rack for something to kill the time, and you purchase, for a quarter, the book with the dirtiest title of all – “A Swell Looking Babe” or “A Hell of a Woman.” You retire to the smoker and quickly sense that the author, Jim Thompson, stands apart from your other favorite train station authors like Charles Willeford, David Goodis or Charles Williams.
Jim Thompson was born September 27, 1906 in territorial Anadarko to a father who served as the deputy sheriff of Caddo County, ran unsuccessfully for the Oklahoma legislature and, reportedly, was then run out of town to Texas for, lean in closer now, embezzlement.
In the early ’30s, Thompson served as the head of the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project, a “New Deal” program that had him mentoring such serious writers as Louis L’Amour, a writer of Westerns whose novels “Hondo” and “How the West Was Won” are genre classics.
Thompson turned to true fiction himself with “Now And On Earth” in 1942. After his second novel, “Heed the Thunder,” Thompson formed an alliance with Lion Books, a small paperback publishing house (hence the availability in bus and train stations) and proceeded to write the standard bearers of this sort of book.
Starting with “The Killer Inside Me,” twice made into films some 25 years apart, ,Thompson’s output during this time includes the titles “After Dark, My Sweet,” “The Grifters” and “The Kill-Off,” all produced as movies in the 1990s, as was a remake of “The Getaway,” first filmed in 1972, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw.
Other Thompson titles include “Savage Night,” “The Alcoholics” and “The Transgressors.”
A partnership with director Stanley Kubrick brought forth scripts for “The Killing,” a masterful heist picture recently given a splendid restoration by the Criterion Collection, and “Paths of Glory,” one of the most potent anti-war films ever made. Thompson also wrote novelizations of scripts from the John Wayne movie “The Undefeated” and the television series “Ironside.” The author even worked as an actor, appearing in the 1974 film “Farewell My Lovely.”
Thompson’s book, “Nothing More Than Murder,” might just be the best novel of 2012, although it was released in 1949. In this book, Thompson’s leading character owns a small-town movie theater and becomes mixed up in murder, insurance scams and ill-fated love.
One of Thompson’s particular specialties is to get inside the head of all characters about whom he writes. The following is a passage from “Nothing More Than Murder” from the perspective of its lead, Joe Wilmont:
“All of a sudden it came over me why I’d had so many blue spells lately.
It was because I felt like I didn’t amount to much anymore. It was because
I didn’t feel that I was as good as other people – that I shouldn’t put
myself with people who wouldn’t do what I was doing.”
Thompson, who struggled with alcohol his whole life, was not a fan of happy endings. At the end of “Nothing More Than Murder,” as the criminal is exposed, he says to himself:
“They can’t hang me, I’m already dead. I’ve been dead a long, long time.”
Charles Adai, president of Hard Case Crime, a modern-day publisher of books such as Thompson’s, said, “In Thompson’s books, you get trapped inside the head of someone in dire straits. His writing is defined by hallucinatory excess.”
If Jim Thompson’s books give readers “crime in the streets,” Ross Thomas’ novels are known by their “crime in the suites.” Thomas wrote his first book, “The Cold War Swap,” after serving as a public relations specialist, a reporter, a union spokesman and political strategist. His novels are among the most purely entertaining of any crime writer.
Born February 19, 1926 in Oklahoma City, Thomas graduated from the University of Oklahoma. According to Thomas himself, his love of politics came from his Sooner State roots.
“I am a gavel-to-gavel political junkie,” he said. “I got hooked as a child. Some of my earliest memories are a curious amalgam of films of the ’30s and political rallies held in Memorial Park in Oklahoma City where, on a hot Depression evening, my parents would sometimes take me to hear booming oratorical efforts of the likes of Blind Tom Gore, Alfalfa Bill Murray and a young, savvy comer named Mike Monroney.”
Thomas’ characters, as a rule, are charlatans, scoundrels and rascals. A recurring character, “Otherguy” Overby, is so named because he usually makes sure the “other guy” takes the fall.
“Briarpatch,” which won the Edgar Awards’ “Novel of the Year,” is a revenge piece cleverly set in a town that somewhat resembles Oklahoma City, making fun of a certain newspaper empire family for whom Thomas once worked, calling it “the same rotten prosperous paper it has always been.”
A terrific example of Thomas’ style can be found in this character description from “Briarpatch”:
“To Benjamin Dill, the corridors of the Carroll Arms still reeked of old-style tag-team politics, and of its cheap scent and loveless sex and hundred-proof bourbon and cigars that came wrapped in cellophane and were sold for a quarter one and two at a time. Although he considered himself a political agnostic, Dill liked most politicians – and most laborskates and consumer fussbudgets and civil rights practitioners and professional whale watchers and tree huggers and antinuke nuts and almost anyone who would rise from one of the wooden folding chairs at the Tuesday night meeting in the basement of the Unitarian church and earnestly demand to know ‘what we here tonight can do about this.’ Dill had long since despaired that there was not much anyone could do about anything, but those that still believed there was interested him and he found them, for the most part, amusing company and witty conversationalists.”
In all, Thomas wrote 20 novels under his own name and five under the name Oliver Bleeck. He wasn’t treated well by Hollywood – his only book filmed was “The Procane Chronicle,” which was turned into the Charles Bronson vehicle “St. Ives.” His original scripts include “Bad Company,” “Hammett” and “Blood In Blood Out.”
Many of Thomas’ novels, including “Yellow Dog Contract,” “The Back-Up Men” and “The Eighth Dwarf,” are offered as ebooks at www.mysteriouspress.com.
According to Otto Penzler, owner of Mysterious Press Bookstore and one of America’s foremost authorities on the crime novel, Thomas still has a place with readers today.
“Readers have responded to the same things in good literature forever,” he said. “Great storytelling and characters with whom they can become engaged. I don’t know whether Ross Thomas was a better creator of great characters or great plots because he did both so well, enhanced with crisp, spot-on dialogue in every book. He is no less captivating today because he dealt with universal human traits of greed, revenge, fear – the very essence of crime fiction.”
When asked why Penzler decided to print Thomas in his new ebook format, he answered, “Easy question. I published him in book form in the 1980s and early ’90s. When I signed my publishing partnership agreement with the CEO of Warner Books, he asked me who was my favorite writer and wanted most to publish. I answered that it was Ross Thomas, and it eventually came to pass. When I started MysteriousPress.com, the first person I called was his agent.”