Nebraska Noir: Detective writing giant Jim Thompson forgotten in his home state


But his ties to the Communist Party soon cost him the leadership, the most lucrative post of his erratic career. In December 1940, he moved the family to San Diego. He scratched plaster for an aircraft manufacturer. He suffered from writer’s block. He drank his frustrations. And somewhere near the bottom, two years later, luck threw a life raft at him.

After hearing Thompson describe his ongoing novel during a trip to New York, folksinger Woody Guthrie personally introduced him to the founder of Modern Age Books. In March 1942, the mainstream publisher released “Now and On Earth”, Thompson’s hard-fought debut album. Although hardly a smash hit, the autobiographical novel garnered praise from The New Yorker and The New Republic. For the first and last time, Burwell acknowledges its editorial success. Under the headline “Burwell Boy Makes Good”, the local newspaper reported the sale of the book and its subsequent inclusion in “Who’s Who in America”.

But his next novel, “Beware the Thunder,” buried what little goodwill he had left in the Sandhills, long before he hit his professional stride. Like Cather, whose work he greatly admired, Thompson was simmering on the American prairie at the turn of the 20th century. But it didn’t follow an immigrant family dutifully pursuing the American dream, as Cather does in “My Ántonia.” He followed the fictional Fargo clan in “Heed the Thunder”: born in the country, small, married and murderous. Another grotesque caricature of his own family. According to Edna Myers Borden, a cousin quoted in “Savage Art”, her own family in Burwell never forgave her, and the local library eventually removed the book from its catalog.

“I think books like ‘My Ántonia’ comforted and reassured people who wanted to believe that human history was an improvement forward,” says Chris Harding Thornton, author of acclaimed novel Pickard County Atlas. critic rooted in the Sandhills. . But Thompson’s work has often reinforced the stark opposite – a life of ever-diminishing returns. Harding Thorton said, “It’s a sharp pill to swallow in a country built on one basic principle: work hard and you’ll catapult yourself out of the mud.”

In the early 1950s, Thompson took off with Lion Books. In just two dizzying years, he’s completed a dozen new novels, including “The Killer Inside Me” and other fan favorites. Many sold well, but all were paperback originals, a step outside – or as many have seen, below – the literary mainstream.

“Thompson’s full legacy goes unrecognized because of our culture’s biases and assumptions about pasta,” said Graham, who studies comics and popular culture. “The low rate of pulp pay meant that a full-time writer had to write fast rather than well. Part of Thompson’s genius was that he could do both.

His novels were less consistent — less innovative — in his later years, Polito claims, the best of them being “random gems among the drecks.” But in 1955, when Thompson was hitting rock bottom for the second time, an as-yet-unknown director named Stanley Kubrick asked him to write a screenplay for “The Killing,” based on Lionel White’s novel “Clean Break.” Now considered a masterpiece, “The Killing” launched Kubrick’s career and breathed new life into Thompson in Hollywood. In addition to numerous television screenplays, he would write two other screenplays for Kubrick, including “Paths of Glory”, another critical success.

In 1977, after suffering several major strokes – he was a lifelong alcoholic – Thompson quit eating. No longer able to write, he seems to refuse to live. He died on April 7, 1977, just 77 pounds and 70, smoking Pall Malls to the hilt. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor the Burwell Tribune published his obituary. None of his books remained in print. Fewer than 25 people attended his funeral.

“And I guess that’s it,” the sheriff thinks after his fiery conclusion in “The Killer Inside Me.” “Yeah, I think that’s it unless our species got another chance at Next Place. Our Kind. We the people. All of us who started the game with a twisted tail, who wanted so much and got so little, that meant so much and hurt so much….


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