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Jim Thompson: Murder at the Bijou [a.k.a Nothing More Than Murder, 1949]
DeVault-Graves Agency eBooks
§ This is an easy read. Fast, minimalist pulp fiction with a superb plot and a completely authentic setting. Stoneville -- could be Texas, could be anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, sometime in the 1940s. Seedy, ruthless cut-throat characters, where murder is just an opportunity for blackmail and business is just business and sex the strangest business of all. Could be a movie, reads like a movie and indeed the author, Jim Thompson, was a screenwriter later in his career. Worked with Stanley Kubrick, although one has to look hard to know it, as Kubrick claimed the premier writing credits, as directors are wont to do. Thompson wrote The Killing (1956), a semi avant-garde crime drama, and the better known WW 1 war film Paths of Glory (1957), both of which have gained in critical stature in recent years.
So Thompson has chops and it's no surprise that there's been a revival of interest in his work... or shall we say, an emancipation from the crime fiction ghetto. The crime in Bijou has some resemblance to the scam in James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, although Cain is a romantic compared to Thompson.
Here's the set-up: having eliminated the competition, Joe Wilmot runs the best and only movie house in Stoneville, The Barclay, which he owns with his older wife, the former Elizabeth Barclay, the daughter of a once important local family. Joe has worked his way up from being a film delivery boy, doing runs from a nearby unnamed city to the various small town theatres in the surrounding counties. Crime is in his background -- he came from an orphanage, did some time in a reform school for vagrancy -- so his world-view is cynical and his low-level criminal pragmaticism just part of a businessman's modus operandi where every other businessman on Main Street is trying to screw him.
"You've got the most remarkable record for chiseling I've ever laid eyes on," says Sol Panzer, the predatory chain-theatre owner and business rival. Joe is laid up in bed suffering from nervous exhaustion (mistaken for grief) when Sol visits him... and of course it's a case of the kettle calling the pot black as just about everyone in this story is a needler and a chiseler.
Elizabeth recruits a young farmer's daughter, Carol, as a domestic helper, although it's obvious the childless Wilmots have no need of a domestic, and while she's no beauty, Carol's feral eroticism soon has her in the sack with Joe. Elizabeth catches them out, yet it seems she hired Carol for just this purpose. Joe needs sex, she needs money; in fact, they both need money because a cash crunch is looming, and the sharks are circling. Everyone is putting the squeeze on Joe: his employees, the movie projectionists' union, the distributors, a large movie theatre chain, his fellow businessmen in Stoneville... even his damn wife, who wants to be gone, and will be gone if she can get her hands on the 25 thou, her part of the "double indemnity" insurance policy the couple hold on each other.
And while murder is part of the plan, all three in this unholy menage à trois are collaborators, albeit uneasy ones. Harness this with the fact that a couple of people want to get their hands on the Bijou, and two or three more want revenge on Joe for past grievances, and that all of the spectators to the "tragedy" seem to be psychic (perhaps arson does that), the subsequent action is both heavy on the paranoia and the double dealing.
As a tap on the movie theatre business, the novel has a textbook accuracy, an insider's been-there-done-that view, so Joe Wilmot's fatal career reads like part of an autobiography. The sociology is classic noir, complete with casebook forensics and a protagonist with the expertise to pull off the crime. Perhaps Elizabeth as a passive-aggressive femme fatale is a bit shadowy, especially later in the action, and the sexual dynamic of the menage à trois anti-erotic... although this adds realism, because, while certain couples often defy logic, trios always make sense.
"The next thing I knew, I was back as far as my memory went..."
In noir, there are always at least two victims, the corpse and the patsy. There can be more, and here... well, the reader will have to find out. This is a tricky narrative, full of switcharama sub-plots and flashbacks, although the forward linearity is relentless. Joe's vernacular monologue is full of street savvy and casual fatalism. The dialogue moves the action and monologue stories are used as sideways illustrations (or parables). Symbolism? Yes, we get symbolism. Thompson even inserts himself for a brief, ironic cameo (p.78), the sort of post-modern conceit we've seen filmmakers from Hitchcock to Fellini use.
Of course most people will miss this, the virtuosity masked by its own easy movement. Writers will marvel, aficionados sweat. If it wasn't for the brutality of it all, the venality and the desperate corruption, some might call the writing beautiful. Thompson isn't for everyone. He's masculine, like a poker game is masculine, with lots of psychic foreplay, bluffing, innuendo, and dangerous gambling. Lying, cheating, false conviviality... all this is routine, love and honor just words.
The ugly face of capitalism? No wonder Thompson joined the Communist Party briefly in the hungry thirties. Still, he could and did write lighter stuff, two of which were made into movies -- The Getaway (1972 & 1994) and The Grifters (1994). Even the Steve McQueen-Ali McGraw version of The Getaway is almost a chick flick, is more style than substance despite being directed by the master of Hobbesian violence, Sam Peckinpah.
This is a nice reprint edition by the DeVault-Graves Agency under their Chalk Line Books imprint, which seems to be modelled on the Black Series crime paperbacks started by the French publishing house Gallimard in 1945. The black pen line drawings by Martha Kelly add an extra element of cool.
Bijou was first published in 1949 as Nothing More Than Murder. It might be the best of Thompson's work, although of course we haven't read it all. It's just possible that Murder At the Bijou rates as the definitive marker of the move by the American novel from document to schematic, book to scenario.
© LR January 22 2016
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