Reviewed by TONY BAER:


JIM THOMPSON – The Criminal. Lion #184, paperback original, 1953. Reprinted many times.

   Bob Talbert is 15 years old. He raped and killed his 14 year old neighbor Josie. Maybe.

   There’s not a lot of evidence one way or the other.

   The DA’s about to let him go when he gets a heads up that the paper is about to go crazy about it: ‘DA Lets Killer Loose!’. The DA decides it would be better for job security to go ahead and force out a confession. Which he does.

   The book is a Rashomon-like POV kaleidoscope with the perspectives of the parents, the law, Bob, the witnesses, and the fourth estate each taking a turn at telling their side of the story.

   No conclusion is reached, and you’re left not knowing who committed the crime. Bob’s not even sure anymore.

   All we know is that everybody is corrupt and no one knows truth from fiction.

   At the end, the paper has played out the ‘DA Lets Killer Loose’ angle and is now ready to push a new story: ‘Innocent Youngster Victim of Miscarriage of Justice’.

   There’s no more truth behind one story than another. At the end of the day, it’s all dollar signs and the stench of mendacity.


   The fact that we’re left without a denouement is disconcerting. We’re just left with a bunch of puzzle pieces of different sizes from different angles of the same scene, none of which fit together. On the other hand, I guess that’s the point. That truth is hard to find. For example, Bob names an eyewitness who, once located, says: ‘What do you want me to say and how much will you pay me to say it?’ Bob’s lawyer says: I just want the truth. They respond: I’m having trouble remembering—how much did you say I’d get paid—and who was it I’m supposed to have seen?

   It’s a unique novel and different from the Thompson’s usual pantheon on psychos on perdition’s path. Ambiguity is not something Thompson is known for. But that’s what he serves up here. Here the psychopath is the criminal justice system itself: Damned and it don’t give a damn. I dug it.