Nebraska Noir: Legendary crime writer forgotten man in home state

Seventy years ago this month, a 25-cent paperback called “The Killer Inside Me” hit newsstands across the country. Featuring a shadowy montage of noir staples – a burning cigarette, a bottle of whiskey, a hint of cleavage and a pool of blood – the cover promised “a novel of murder unlike any you’ve ever read.” 

For hundreds of thousands of readers, both then and now and around the world, the superlative proved disturbingly accurate. Written by Jim Thompson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum who spent much of his childhood in Burwell, “The Killer Inside Me” is the confessional tale of Lou Ford, the deputy sheriff of Central City, Texas. On the surface, he’s all hokum and handshakes, the small-town everyman. But as the title implies, something far more sinister – he calls it “the sickness” – lurks inside.

I’ve loafed around the streets sometimes, leaned against a store front with my hat pushed back and one boot hooked back around the other – hell, you’ve probably seen me if you’ve ever been out this way – I’ve stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside. Just watching people.

Thompson’s fourth novel has since become a staple of the genre, a cult classic, a crown atop the crime writing canon. Famed director Stanley Kubrick said it was “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.” Horror icon Stephen King, in his foreword to the latest reissue, calls it “an American classic, no less, a novel that deserves space on the same shelf with “Moby-Dick,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Sun Also Rises” and “As I Lay Dying.’” It’s now been published in more than 20 languages, and twice adapted to the silver screen. 

The cover of Thompson’s breakout book, “The Killer Inside Me.” The story of a deranged Texas sheriff – a story molded out of Thompson’s childhood – is an American classic, wrote horror icon Stephen King. Famed director Stanley Kubrick said the book is “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.”
Courtesy photo  

And yet Nebraska –  where Thompson first scratched his literary itch, where he studied his craft and courted his wife and wrote for literary magazine Prairie Schooner and ag magazine Nebraska Farmer alike – has all but forgotten its ties to one of the most influential crime writers of the 20th century. Unlike Willa Cather or John Neihardt, his name hasn’t been etched in stone at the university. His bust doesn’t sit inside the capitol building. No historical markers. No heritage society. 

Nothing. 

“His fiction is inherently and seductively alienating,” says novelist Timothy Schaffert, creative writing director at UNL and fan of Thompson. “There’s nothing at all precious about his work, or his life, and that makes it hard to cradle him in our arms.”

***

Before Lou Ford became one of the most deranged sheriffs in American literature, he taught high school in Burwell. Sort of. According to Robert Polito, author of “Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson,” the writer’s most influential novel “was a portrait of his father, primarily, and kind of a self-portrait, too.”

Thompson drew habitually from personal experience, often stretching and distorting those he knew best. After “Big Jim” Thompson taught for a decade in central Nebraska — and after he married Birdie Myers, his former student in Burwell — they moved south to Anadarko, Oklahoma, where he was elected county sheriff. 

“Thompson wasn’t a psychopathic killer, nor was his father,” Polito says. “But they both had all of those impulses inside them. That anger. That sense of personality as camouflage. It was very personal.”

The couple’s second child and only son, Jim Thompson was born September 27, 1906, in a small apartment above the Caddo County jail. The boy wasn’t yet two years old when Big Jim’s social veneer began to crack. Facing embezzlement charges, he sent his wife and two small children on a northbound train back to Burwell and, before the sun could rise, fled toward Mexico on horseback.

“Nebraska’s literary heritage is sound enough to permit a renegade or two, even one who offends….Jim Thompson is one of the best of the hardboiled novelists, and it’s no surprise that he wrote his books in a blaze, since he gets into and out of his plots so quickly.”

Ron Hansen, author of “ The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Nebraska: Stories.”

Today, you won’t find even one of Thompson’s roughly three dozen novels at the Garfield County Library in Burwell. Not “The Killer Inside Me.” Not “The Grifters.” Not even, “Heed the Thunder,” set in a fictional Sandhills town awfully similar to Burwell, and starring a family awfully similar to his own. You won’t find them in the Burwell High School library, or in the used book section at the local coffee shop. You won’t find his legacy cast in bronze on the town square, or graffitied on the diversion dam in Riverside Park.

“You know, there are Thompsons around here,” says library director Shelley Ruterbories, “but no, that name doesn’t ring any bells for me.”

But off and on for the next two decades, a young Jim Thompson, smart and skinny and exceedingly shy, considered this cow town on the North Loup River his home.

Thompson as a boy. His father, Jim Thompson, often known as “Big Jim,” taught high school in Burwell and married one of his former students, Birdie Myers. She gave birth to three children, one of whom, Jim, who would grow up to be a famed and – in his native Nebraska – largely forgotten crime writer.
Photo Courtesy of the Thompson Family

He would conjure that stark prairie landscape in an aching poem for Prairie Schooner, comparing the ruts he followed daily to his one-room schoolhouse to the bars of a jail cell. And he would do so again in “Heed the Thunder,” what Vintage Crime, one of the book’s publishers, later championed as “Willa Cather steeped in rotgut—and armed with a .45.” 

“Along the crest of the sandhills a few snaky fingers of sunlight had edged down through the hayflats, dipping shiveringly into the icy Calamus, darting back through drift fence, scurrying past soddy and dugout,” the novel begins. “But the rich valley rested undisturbed, darkly, luxuriously.”

“I get the impulse of not wanting to indulge work that normalizes cruelty and brutality. But I don’t experience Thompson’s work that way. I think it often uses nastiness to make a crucial point: a whole lot of what we’ve normalized is crass and cruel…Not writing books about brutality doesn’t rid us of brutality. If anything, books shake us into realizing the absurdities we’ve accepted.

Chris Harding Thornton, author of, “Pickard County Atlas.” 

His father eventually resurfaced and summoned the family to Fort Worth, where Thompson, then in high school, worked a string of odd jobs to supplement the family income. He spent two seedy, eye-opening years bellhopping at the Hotel Texas – a fever dream of conjobs and cocaine, of pimping and peddling drugs. A few more roughnecking in the oil fields of west Texas. And finally, heeding the advice of an editor at Texas Monthly, he returned to Nebraska and enrolled at UNL, where he was “rushed” by Alpha Gamma Rho, an agricultural fraternity on East Campus. 

“Hell, in case you’re interested,” Thompson later wrote, “is the College of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska. You can take my word for it.”

Today, you won’t find any Star City boulevards named in his honor. You won’t find a trendy cocktail bar slinging “The Thompson” downtown. But it was in Lincoln that Thompson married Alberta Hesse, a local telephone operator. And it was in Lincoln, in the fall of 1929, that he began truly honing his craft. He frequented a creative writing workshop at the home of Lowry Wimberly, the founding editor of Prairie Schooner, where he likely mingled with Mari Sandoz and other soon-to-be-celebrated Nebraska literati. Foreshadowing his later foray into mass-market paperbacks, he also studied the business of publishing under Professor Robert Crawford, who created a wide-ranging course in agricultural journalism.

“What Thompson ultimately derived from Crawford,” Polito wrote, “was a conception of himself as a professional writer.” 

Thompson with then-girlfriend Lucille Boomer in Lincoln in 1929. Thompson attended UNL, met and married his wife Alberta, and began honing his craft in publications like the literary journal Prairie Schooner – and also Nebraska Farmer, the oldest agriculture journal in the state.
Photo courtesy of Maxine Thompson Kouba

The Depression soon derailed his education. But during his two years at UNL, Thompson published a handful of short stories in Prairie Schooner, likely the first ag student to crack the nationally renowned journal. And he published in less obvious outlets, too: The Cornhusker Countryman, the ag college monthly, and Nebraska Farmer, the oldest ag journal in the state, neither of which typically published fiction.

“Oklahoma can claim him all they want,” says Richard Graham, UNL media librarian and associate professor, “but we fostered and nurtured Thompson and his talent here in Nebraska.”

After several years living what he called a “hobo existence,” he started writing true crime to feed his growing family. He joined the Communist Party in Oklahoma, and eventually rose to the directorship of the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project, where he worked alongside writer Louis L’Amour, not yet the western icon he would soon become.

Jim Thompson as an adult. Thompson joined the Communist Party during the Great Depression, became director of the Oklahoma Federal Writers’ Project, then lost his job because of his Communist leanings.
After moving with his family to California, he broke out as a crime novelist and started the busiest and most quality period of his writing career.
Photo courtesy of Baror International, Inc.

“I’ve sometimes thought that Jimmy wrote what he did in answer to L’Amour’s sentimental gook,” his co-worker Gordon Friesen told Polito. “Jim Thompson’s was the real story–How the West Was Really Won….”

It’s a sentiment echoed by many of those writing in his footsteps today.

“He saw the darkness here, saw past the veneer of niceness, and while it makes us uncomfortable to see through his eyes, I’m glad for it,” said Brent Spencer, crime novelist and creative writing professor at Creighton University. “He’s our Virgil.” 

But his Communist Party ties soon cost him the directorship, the most lucrative gig of his erratic career. In December 1940, he moved the family to San Diego. He scraped plaster for an airplane manufacturer. He suffered writer’s block. He drank his frustrations. And somewhere near rock-bottom, two years later, luck threw him a life raft.

After hearing Thompson describe his novel-in-progress during a trip to New York, folk singer Woody Guthrie personally introduced him to the founder of Modern Age Books. In March 1942, the mass market publisher released, “Now and On Earth,” Thompson’s hard-fought debut. Though hardly a smash hit, the autobiographical novel garnered praise from the likes of The New Yorker and the New Republic. For the first and last time, Burwell took note of his publishing success. Under the headline, “Burwell Boy Makes Good,” the local newspaper reported the book’s sale and his subsequent inclusion in, “Who’s Who in America.”

But his next novel, “Heed the Thunder,” buried what little goodwill he had left in the Sandhills, well before he hit his professional stride. Like Cather, whose work he greatly admired, Thompson stewed in the American prairie at the turn of the 20th century. But he followed not an immigrant family dutifully chasing the American dream, as Cather does in, “My Ántonia.” He followed the fictional Fargo clan in “Heed the Thunder”: Native-born, petty, intermarried and murderous. Another grotesque caricature of his own family. According to Edna Myers Borden, a cousin quoted in “Savage Art,” his own family in Burwell never forgave him, and the local library eventually axed the book from its catalog. 

“I think books like, “My Ántonia” comforted and reassured people who wanted to believe human history was all forward-moving improvement,” says Chris Harding Thornton, author of, “Pickard County Atlas,” a critically acclaimed novel rooted in the Sandhills. But Thompson’s work often reinforced the brutal opposite—a life of ever-dwindling returns. Said Harding Thorton: “That’s a razor-edged pill to swallow in a country built on one basic premise: work hard and you’ll catapult yourself out of the mud.” 

In the early 1950s, Thompson hit his stride with Lion Books. In just two dizzying years, he completed a dozen new novels, including, “The Killer Inside Me” and other fan favorites. Many  sold well, but all of them were paperback originals, a step aside from — or as many saw it, below — the literary mainstream.

“Thompson’s full legacy isn’t being recognized because of our culture’s prejudice and assumptions about the pulps,” said Graham, who studies comic books and popular culture. “The low pay rate of the pulps meant that a full-time writer had to write quickly rather than well. Part of Thompson’s genius was that he could do both.”

His novels were less consistent – less innovative – in his later years, Polito argues, the best of them “random gems among the dreck.” But in 1955, as Thompson approached rock bottom for a second time, a still unknown director named Stanley Kubrick asked him to write a screenplay for, “The Killing,” based on the novel “Clean Break” by Lionel White. Now considered a masterpiece, “The Killing” launched Kubrick’s career and sparked a second wind for Thompson in Hollywood. In addition to numerous television scripts, he would author two more screenplays for Kubrick, including, “Paths of Glory,” another critical hit.

Thompson as an older man. A lifelong alcoholic, he often hit rock bottom just before catching a second wind. After numerous rejections for his first novel, folk singer Woody Guthrie introduced him to a publisher. Later in his career, a then unknown director named Stanley Kubrick asked him to write a screenplay, work that re-launched Thompson in Hollywood. Photo courtesy of Baror International, Inc.

In 1977, after suffering several major strokes – he was a lifelong alcoholic  – Thompson stopped eating. No longer able to write, he seemingly refused to live. He died on April 7, 1977, just 77 pounds and 70 years old, smoking Pall Malls to the very end. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor the Burwell Tribune ran his obituary. None of his books remained in print. Fewer than 25 people attended his funeral.

“And I guess—that’s—all,” the sheriff muses after his fiery conclusion in, “The Killer Inside Me.” “Yeah, I reckon that’s all unless our kind gets another chance in the Next Place. Our Kind. Us people. All of us that started the game with a crooked cue, that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad….”

***

In 1990, a critically acclaimed adaptation of his novel, “The Grifters,” produced by Martin Scorsese, triggered a revival of his work. Alec Baldwin starred in a second adaptation of “The Getaway” in 1994 (the first starred Steve McQueen). Casey Affleck starred in a second adaption of “The Killer Inside Me” in 2010. And Mulholland Books has since reissued nearly his entire bibliography.

“As a young, gay writer in the 1980s/90s, I found Thompson’s portraits of outsiders to be very scintillating and convincing. His criminals were graceful in how they juggled their lies. We perhaps don’t want to relate too much to his characters, but we can certainly be captivated by their very human insights and sharp observations, even when they’re slithering around in the underbelly.”

Timothy Schaffert, author of “The Perfume Thief” and “The Swan Gondola.”

Still simmering, the revival seems nevertheless to have bypassed his Nebraska stomping grounds. Neither the Nebraska Library Commission nor the Nebraska Literary Heritage Association were able to refer the Flatwater Free Press to a Thompson authority in the state. Nor did a repeated request for Thompson fans airing on KCNI, one of the largest radio stations near Burwell, muster a single caller. 

“Nobody talks about the end of the first chapter of Cather’s, “My Ántonia,” says Dan Chaon, a native Nebraskan and award-winning fiction writer. He considers his latest novel, “Sleep Walk,” a Thompson tribute. “‘Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be, would be.’ 

“Isn’t that ‘blotting out’ at the core of Thompson’s work?”

By Carson Vaughan

Carson Vaughan is a freelance journalist from central Nebraska with a focus on the Great Plains. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker (online), The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Paris Review Daily, Outside, Pacific Standard, VICE, In These Times, and more. Most recently, he was awarded the 2018 John M. Collier Award for Forest History Journalism from the Forest History Society for his Weather Channel feature, “Uprooting FDR’s ‘Great Wall of Trees.’” He was also a recipient of a 2018 Individual Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council.
His first book, Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream, was published by Little A in April 2019 and earned a 2020 Nebraska Book Award for Nonfiction (Investigative Reporting) from the Nebraska Library Commission.

12 Comments

Hell, I am from Nebraska, have read much of Thompson’s work and never even knew that he had lived there, let alone attended UNL. Thank You for a great article!

So weird. We just recorded “Paths of Glory” a few days ago but had no idea of the Burwell connection.

Burwell – promote the heck out of this!

Outstanding article. I’ve read Thompson, and as a native Nebraskan, never realized his roots were in Nebraska. His writing, for me, is like a great plains version of Carson McCullers.

Thanks for a very interesting and educational article. A quick search on WorldCat.org indicates that some of his novels are held by a smattering of Nebraska libraries. Amazon has quite a few, many for the Kindle.

I had never heard of him. It’s interesting that he is so little known here, and that so few libraries hold any of his work (I do note that both the Kearney Public and UNK libraries do hold several.). Anyone interested in reading any of Thompson’s novels should be able to request an interlibrary loan from their local library.

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