Long before I read The Killer Inside Me for the first time the book both fascinated and scared me. How can I resist reading one of the classics of the noir/pulp genre? On the other hand, would this dark tale told in first person prove to be too much for me? I was in two minds.
Lou Ford, a small town sheriff’s deputy, is an ordinary (if slightly dull) man. Except no one knows that inside him there is a pool of darkness, a thing he calls his ‘sickness’. For years he has been containing it. One wrong person, one wrong moment and it may all come crashing down. Unfortunately Lou will soon meet a woman called Joyce Lakeland. Soon it will all spiral out of control and leave one bloody ugly mess.
Maybe it was shocking when it was first published in the 1950’s but for someone who has read the modern day works in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre; the violence may not be a big deal. It’s all pretty subtle when compared to modern depictions of violence.
What I found troubling was not the violence but the fact that I, the reader, actually had to see through the eyes of a psychopath. The first person narrative makes this book all the more disturbing. All that evil, stated so matter of factly by Lou, felt so very real.
What’s more is that Lou makes it all seem so rational. There are moments when one forgets how sick and twisted this man is. That is what makes this so unsettling.
I found it amazing how Jim Thompson showed Lou’s sadistic nature come out through his habit of cornering people and unloading on them one cliché after another. An example is given early in the story,
“The smile on his face was getting strained. I could hear his shoes creak as he squirmed. If there’s anything worse than a bore, it’s a corny bore. But how can you brush off a nice friendly fellow who’d give you his shirt if you asked for it?”
He delights in seeing people fidget and avoid him as he slowly torments them with his dull, plodding words. Brilliant!
There is a nightmarish quality to the narrative. It’s because Lou’s life is somewhat of a nightmare. As he describes it,
“It was like being asleep when you were awake and awake when you were asleep. I’d pinch myself, figuratively speaking–I had to keep pinching myself. Then I’d wake up kind of in reverse; I’d go back into the nightmare I had to live in. And everything would be clear and reasonable.”
He wants to get away from it all. He believes leaving the small town he grew up in will solve all of his problems. But then he wonders does one ever get way?
“The Conways were part of the circle, the town, that ringed me in; the smug ones, the hypocrites, the holier-than-thou guys–all the stinkers I had to face day in and day out. I had to grin and smile and be pleasant to them; and maybe there are people like that everywhere, but when you can’t get away from them, when they keep pushing themselves at you, and you can’t get away, never, never, get away.”
The book isn’t simple. There are a lot of layers to the story. As the narration is in first person, it is all a bit hazy. Of course one couldn’t expect a mentally disturbed person to be rational and precise. It is, after all, his mind that we are looking in to.
At times I had trouble understanding what was going on. Thompson left a lot unsaid and it certainly isn’t a bad thing even if it did hinder my understanding the book.
The story is sexist. It portrays the women in a bad light. Both Joyce Lakeland and Amy Stanton are portrayed as mean, spiteful women who help bring about Lou’s downward descent ever more rapidly. But I suppose it is a product of its time.
Watching and almost experiencing how the delicate balance that took years to build gets destroyed is disquieting. I didn’t find The Killer Inside Me gory but it is a cruel, merciless story. It isn’t fun to watch a serial killer’s mind unravel as the bodies pile up.
Even though revisiting The Killer Inside Me was difficult, it remains a favourite of mine mainly because of its writer, Jim Thompson. He was definitely ahead of his time. The book truly deserves its status as a classic of the noir genre.