Books: Pop. 1280, The Transgressors


Jim Thompson, who wrote most of his books in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, prowled the sewers of the human soul. His heroes were low-lifes, his stories pretty much devoid of people you’d want to take home to Momma.

Stephen King wrote in his introduction to Thompson’s “Now and On Earth”:

Know what I admired the most? The guy was over the top. The guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn’t know the meaning of the word stop…..His novels are terrifying cameos of smalltown hurt, hypocrisy, and desperation. They are urgent in their ugliness, triumphant in their tawdriness….

Someone has to examine the stool samples of society; someone has to describe those tumors from which more cultured people shy away. Jim Thompson was one of the few.

I’ve read six Jim Thompson books now. I recently finished two. Like most Thompson books, they are published under the Vintage Black Lizard imprint.

“Pop. 1280” (1964) is set in a Texas smalltown, and told first-person by the town’s sheriff, Nick Corey. Corey presents himself as a lazy, cowardly fool–which he is. But he’s also a manipulative psychotic killer who conveys absolutely no guilt or second thoughts about his sins, which he carries out in a somewhat carefree way.

This book is a first-cousin to Thompson’s most famous book, “The Killer Inside Me,” which also stars a murderous sheriff. Actually, “The Getaway” and “The Grifters” are probably better known, but only because they were made into pretty good movies. “The Getaway,” with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, was actually a great movie (which ended just before the book got really really dark).

“Pop. 1280” moved along quickly, the writing somewhat sparse, lacking (in a good way) at lot of imagery and atmospherics. I highly recommend it. Nick Corey is utterly fascinating, and you can’t guess what he’s going to do next as he leads you along in his own words, having a gool ol’ time.

“The Transgressors” (1961) also stars a lawman, this time a sheriff’s deputy, who ends up on the wrong side of the law, sort of. Tom Lord is not a terrible guy, like Nick Corey, but not a White Hat cowboy either. This one’s set in Texas, too. Lord does what he needs to do to avoid a world of hurt. It’s a pretty good Thompson book, not a great one.

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