Jim Thompson, “The Grifters” (1963) – Gotta say… for a book about grifters, there’s precious little grifting in this one. Jim Thompson was the standard bearer for pulp hardboiled crime fiction in the 1950s and 1960s, picking up where Chandler and Hammett left off (and sharing the latter’s Popular Front sympathies- I’m not sure how he avoided the blacklist, possibly through avoiding writing for pictures?). Among other things, he carried forward the existentialism-inflected psychological bent of earlier hardboiled writers. I’d argue it goes a little too much in the psychological direction in this one.
It makes sense- these sort of noir stories were always more about the people than the crimes. And the particular grifts in this book are almost shockingly banal and small time; stuff like rolling loaded dice for drinks and asking for change for twenties and then pocketing both the twenty and the change. Not exactly interesting crimes here. So I guess from that perspective it makes sense that the book focuses largely on the tangled inner lives of short-con grifter Roy Dillon, his mother Lilly, and his lover Moira.
The problem is, at the end of the day, the inner life stuff is pretty midcentury paint by numbers. A lot of pop-Freud (you can guess what Roy’s relationship with his hustler mom is like), a lot of what we’d now call “generational trauma” but what at the time they’d call something like “bad home environment” leading to antisocial behavior, a little bit of the holocaust kind of wedged in and then left alone. Thompson’s clever enough to play a little with the Code-era combination of leering fascination with squalor and edifying excuses for gawking that both writers and readers indulged. But it’s still feels rote at times.
It’s a brisk 189 pages and Thompson is a good enough prose stylist to keep you reading. Some of the stuff about the milieu — the community of short-con operators, with its oral traditions and fleeting (and inevitably betrayed) connections — and its connections to square society are interesting. But more should have happened. I wasn’t ready to start doodling bongs in the margins, but it could’ve used a little more action. ***’