by Jim Thompson
What I loved was myself, and I was willing to do anything I god-dang had to to go on lying and cheating and drinking whiskey and screwing women and going to church on Sunday with all the other respectable people.
The apparently slow-witted sheriff in the 47th largest county in a state of 47 counties finds his job easiest when he takes a hands-off, ‘don’t bother anyone and no one will bother me’ approach, which brands him as a weakling and a coward to the local populace. But since they all live the types of lives that benefit from law enforcement never enforcing the law they don’t mind too much. The man’s methods of problem solving revolve around shifting blame or turning a blind eye, and they’ve worked so far. But when the sheriff lands himself in a jam of his own making he decides the answer to his latest problem is murder.
Killings escalate from there, and Sheriff Nick’s strategy shifts from hands-off to Machiavellian subterfuge, with victims dropping like narcotics at police check points. And we find our sheriff isn’t really all that dim-witted; he’s a warm-blooded, poisonous snake.
I said I meant I was just doing my job, followin’ the holy precepts laid down in the Bible. “It’s what I’m supposed to do, you know, to punish the heck out of people for bein’ people. To coax ‘em into revealin’ theirselves, an’ then kick the crap out of ‘em.”
Thompson again gives us a story with no heroes, just gradations of wrong, and since the story’s narrator is first-person from the sheriff we clearly see his justifications, a device also used in his outstanding novel The Killer Inside Me. But the difference here lies in the twisting schemes our protagonist uses to deal with everyone. He’s not exactly justifying his actions, he’s saying he’s human and just fulfilling his God-given role as such. So he plots and strategizes and tears to shreds the lives of all the sinners around him like an avenging angel suffering from Mad Cow, not thinking he’s in the right, but still thinking he’s still doing his duty. It’s a strange balance between selfish indulgence and unstable megalomania.
The novel reads fast, as Thompson’s generally do. It’s a train wreck of a situation, but one that’s inevitable based on the characters involved. Even the smartest of those involved with Nick find themselves baffled by his conversational twists, and many of them die quickly thereafter in a story that shares thematic elements with the seminal Eastwood film High Plains Drifter.
“Just because I put temptation in front of people, it don’t mean they got to pick it up.”
This novel may be the hardest to peg of the five Thompson Centipede releases. The grays of his worlds are dialed down a little with the blacks more forward, and the quiet introspection of The Grifters and A Swell-Looking Babe doesn’t ring as clearly because of the sheriff’s wily and damnable character. But it’s got more of something else; perhaps a slow, steady condemnation of us all that replaces the missing ring with a snake-rattle.
“I wouldn’t say you was wrong, but I sure wouldn’t say you was right, neither.”