A Swell-Looking Babe

by Jim Thompson

That had been almost a year ago, back before he had lost his capacity for being insulted, before he had learned  simply to accept… and hate.

Dusty Rhodes is a bellhop at a high end hotel, a job that has him involved in all manner of hijinks and pays well, and he needs the money to take care of his semi-invalid father. Tug, a gangster and one of the long term guests at the hotel, befriends Dusty, and after a female guest attempts to frame him for attempted rape Tug helps him out by strong-arming the woman. But there’s a price, and Dusty’s now forced into a heist of the hotel’s guest safety deposits during race season.

The synopsis reads as a good thriller/crime story, but this book’s a great deal deeper than its plot. Dusty has real issues, including a warped Oedipal complex for his deceased mother that’s affected his relationships with women. This also causes a sense of resentment toward his father who’s not treated nearly as well as Dusty tells himself he’s treating the old man. So while the heist is seemingly taking center stage in the story, this relationship between Dusty and his father is a major factor.

Complicating everything is the drop dead gorgeous woman from the hotel. Even after the attempted rape fiasco, Tug has convinced Dusty he’s still got a chance with the woman who appeared to really like him. On top of the sociopathic Dusty’s parental issues and his work issues with the heist, add sexual confusion.

This novel is dark in a dead-eyed, dismal way. These guys are big, real characters, and there’s just nothing redeeming about any of them. It’s perfect noir fodder, as everyone’s playing an angle and it’s just about impossible for things to turn out in a way that doesn’t have everyone losing. Perhaps what’s darkest about it is the fact we ourselves become involved with these people, if for only a short while, and find startling similarities in our own lives.

No, we’re not nearly as bad as Dusty, or as Tug, or Marcia, or the desk clerk, or the lawyer, etc. And we can take comfort in that. Except that’s the same thing characters like Dusty and Tug are telling themselves in Thompson novels: ‘I’m not nearly as bad as such-and-such, so I must be ok. It’s not my fault. I’m the victim here…’ and so on.

A Swell-Looking Babe is an excellent read with riveting details and a fast-moving plot, but the bulk of the story, the subversive elements that’ll work on you, those are separate from the action. Those are the things that’ll make you sad, make your heart a little sick, and maybe make you treat someone you love just a little better to distance yourselves from bleak, hard stories like this one.

Later, he did not know he had been so blind as to fail to see. It was all so simple, simple and deadly. All the parts to the puzzle had been in his hands, and he had only to look at them.
That, however, was later.

4 stars

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