If I had to describe The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, I’d say to reimagine American Psycho through a lens created by combining the works of Raymond Chandler with To Kill a Mockingbird. I know that probably sounds a little weird, but despite what I can describe you might have to read The Killer Inside Me yourself to see what I’m talking about.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Walter Kirn)
Lou Ford is a deputy sherriff in a small but growing town in Texas. He’s likeable, almost simple perhaps:
“Well, I tell you,” I drawled. “I tell you the way I look at it, a man doesn’t get any more out of life than what he puts into it.”
“Umm,” he said, fidgeting. “I guess you’re right, Lou.”
“I was thinking the other day, Max; and all of a sudden I had the doggonedest thought. It came to me out of a clear sky—the boy is father to the man. Just like that. The boy is father to the man.”
Unfortunately, that’s just the surface. Inside dwells what the calls “the sickness.” He’s an uncontrollable killer, a fiend:
“No, baby”—my lips drew back from my teeth. “I’m not going to hurt you. I wouldn’t’ think of hurting you. I’m just going to beat the ass plumb off you.”
I said it, and I meant it and I damned near did.
I jerked the jersey up over her face and tied the end in a knot. I threw her down on the bed, yanked off her sleeping shorts and tied her feet together with them.
I took off my belt and raised it over my head….
I don’t know how long it was before I stopped, before I came to my senses. All I know is that my arm ached like hell and her rear end was one big bruise, and I was scared crazy—as scared as a man can get and go on living.
He’s killed before, driven by impulses he cannot control, but that was in his youth. He was protected, but watched. Controlled. Unfortunately, that control is now gone with the deaths of his father and adopted brother and Lou meets a whore who makes the sickness again rise. He decides she has to die. People start sniffing after Lou Ford’s trail and he decides they have to die as well. Coldly calculating, he proceeds about his business.
The Killer Inside Me is a dark book. Not so much in the crimes Lou Ford commits, because though the murders are terrible I’ve certainly read worse and more graphic. The darkness for me is more in how reasonable he seems, how much Thompson gets you to like him at the same time you hate him. You find yourself rooting for Lou at the same time you want him stopped. You can’t reconcile it, and that’s the real mastery as I saw it in The Killer Inside Me. It’s certainly an impressive writing achievement…just a frightening one.