Is Jim Thompson as good as pulp fiction gets?

after dark, my sweet

A few days ago I re-read Jim Thompson’s After Dark, My Sweet in the Black Lizard/Vintage Crime edition.

It is the story of a troubled (that should probably be with a capital T) ex-prize fighter who falls in with a beautiful widow and a defrocked policeman who are planning the kidnapping for ransom of a young boy.

That’s a mouthful, I know.

Yet Thompson is able to tell his chilling tale in one-hundred and thirty pages of first person introspection. Each short chapter leaves the reader wondering what is next to come and shifting his allegiance between characters.  The hero is from time to time heart-warming and enigmatic, cruel and possessed, hard-boiled and tender.  The widow is a violent, vicious drunk, who is compassionate and vulnerable when sober. Only the ex-cop has no apparent redeeming qualities, perhaps because Thompson found him too repulsive to spend time giving him a heart.

After Dark, My Sweet and similar works by Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald represent the high water mark in pulp fiction, and as such, reveal the need for a new generation of pulp books.  I have suggested in other blogs that eBooks are the contemporary analog of ten cent paperbacks, and now I am convinced of it.

E-books are the perfect format for the new-old genre of ePulp fiction, fast-paced, short novels about small slices of life, slices of life where a few star-crossed souls find themselves thrown together at a tipping point.

However, one would be sorely mistaken to believe that the brevity and small cast which characterize pulp fiction mean that the characters lack depth.  Thompson pioneered the modern introspective novel where the demons that drive a person to do terrible things narrate the story, channeling through the spirits of commonplace, tragic people of the land and the street.

It is the absence of pretense that makes pulp fiction so great and has allowed it to endure for more than half a century. In a world where pretense has become the watchword, we would do well to re-visit the gritty, direct fiction of the pulp writers.

Jim Thompson is a good place to start.

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