by Curt J. Evans

JIM THOMPSON – A Hell of a Woman. Lion #218, paperback original. Reprint editions include: Lion Library #138, pb, 1956; Black Lizard/Creative Arts #77, softcover, 1984; Vintage Books, softcover, 1990.

JIM THOMPSON Hell of a Woman

   In a comment following Dan Stumpf’s recent review of Jim Thompson’s Savage Night, I mentioned my dislike of Thompson’s influential novel (widely acknowledged as a genre masterpiece), The Killer Inside Me. I do not deny the artistry of this narrative of a deeply disturbed mind, but the brutality and viciousness of it all was quite off-putting to tenderhearted me.

   But I have persevered and finally read a second Thompson, another of his most-highly-regarded tales, A Hell of a Woman. And I am pleased to report that not only do I respect the artistry, I actually enjoyed the read this time — though the events described are nearly as lurid and depraved as those in The Killer Inside Me.

   Hell chronicles the fateful collision of salesman Frank “Dolly” Dillon with the household of a really quite nasty old lady and her niece, the sexy (and really quite stacked) Mona Farrell. The tight-fisted and not overly scrupulous aunt whores her daughter out to various men, you see, so that she need not pay cash to these men for services rendered.

JIM THOMPSON Hell of a Woman

   So if auntie wants some yard work done or hankers after a sparkly new set of flatware, say, the man who has such to offer is invited to visit Mona’s bedroom. If Mona doesn’t thereupon put out, Mona gets knocked about (auntie wields a mean cane at the age of about seventy).

   Dolly is married to Joyce, a woman he has tired of, and he is attracted to Mona, who he sees as essentially virginal and innocent and sweet, even though auntie has handed her over by now to the army, navy, air force and marines, figuratively speaking.

   Let’s let Dolly tell it in his own inimitable words:

    “I thought what a sweet kid that Mona was, and why I couldn’t have married her instead of a goddamn bag like Joyce.”

   Invited by such thoughts, murder comes to visit and makes itself at home….

   The plot, which also involves Dolly’s diddling of the accounts of the business for which he works, the Pay-E-Zee Stores (in its own way as nightmarish a concern as Old Lady Farrell’s house), is pleasingly intricate and actually took some twists and turns that surprised me.

JIM THOMPSON Hell of a Woman

   I came to realize A Hell of a Woman is less a crime story per se than a tale about the onset of criminal madness (which I think can be said about much of Thompson’s work). The progressive deterioration of Dolly’s mind, culminating in the famous split narrative conclusion, is fascinating, in its repugnant way (like the current Casey Anthony trial).

   I found Dolly less monstrous than the charming gentleman whose deeds are remorselessly chronicled by Thompson in The Killer Inside Me; yet Dolly, by golly, is no day at the beach or picnic on a Sunday afternoon. If you won a “Spend a Day with Dolly” contest, you’d be thinking twice about accepting the “prize,” if you get me.

   Here, for example, is Dolly as a restaurant critic:

    “I sat down in a booth, and the waitress shoved a menu in front of me. There wasn’t anything on it that sounded good, and anyway, one look at her and my stomach turned flipflops… Every goddamned restaurant I go to, it’s always the same way… They’ll have some old bag on the payroll — I figure they keep her locked up in the mop closet until they see me coming. And they’ll doll her up in the dirtiest goddamned apron they can find and smear that crappy red polish all over her fingernails, and everything about her is smeary and sloppy and smelly. And she’s the dame that always waits on me.”

JIM THOMPSON Hell of a Woman

   Dolly, one may come to realize, has women issues. In fact, though I never felt that the novel’s young women, Mona and Joyce, were as sufficiently-characterized as the men (some of the motivations seemed dubious or nebulous), this novel turns the whole noir femme fatale tradition on its pretty head, or so it seemed to me — though you would never guess this from the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard cover of the 1990 paperback edition.

   And the ending is something that has to be read to be believed. Freud would have loved to have been able to analyze it, I’m sure.

   The Black Lizard paperback edition also tells us that Hell is Thompson’s “homegrown version of Crime and Punishment.” I know Thompson has been called the “Dimestore Dostoevsky,” but it seems to me that he and the Russian are quite different personalities. Certainly it is difficult for me to glimpse redemption in the final hellish scene of Hell. Rather, it seems the grisly climax of the darkest nightmare.

   In short: Awfully impressive, but also impressively awful.