Jim Thompson, Crime Fiction, and the American West
I have just finished reading Jim Thompson’s second novel Heed the Thunder (1946), a western set in early twentieth-century Nesbraska. When I first came across the book I initially thought it must have been a departure from Thompson’s celebrated hardboiled crime fiction, but it was actually published before Thompson started writing crime fiction. Like John D. MacDonald and Chester Himes, Thompson began his writing career with more respectable ‘literary’ aspirations. But like many of his contemporaries, he found his greatest acclaim in crime fiction, although in Thompson’s case much of that acclaim has been posthumous. Heed the Thunder is a loosely plotted series of episodes set around the wealthy Fargo family: much of the focus is centred on the patriarch Lincoln Fargo, a Civil War veteran who served in the Union Army but held secret Southern sympathies. The book often reads as an overly self-conscious attempt to write a ‘Great American Novel’, but it’s possible to see why Thompson would later excel in the hardboiled genre. There is a pervasive sense of secrets and conspiracies forming between families, friends and communities. The narrative also moves inexorably towards violently horrific conclusions as the repercussions are felt from immoral actions, such as a longstanding incestuous affair between first-cousins. It is the younger generation of characters who seem to meet the most macabre of fates. The older characters tend to cling on living with their sorrow. Although not everyone seems to be ill-fated, a venal and incompetent politician is steadily promoted and even manages to do something charitable. One of the most notable qualities of the novel is Thompson’s skill for eliciting pathos through his sharp ear for regional dialects. The deathbed thoughts of one leading character are particularly moving:
I know now, maybe, what the Bible means when it talks about a sparrer falling – I mean, every time there’s a death, the whole world dies a little. There ain’t no death, no deed, no o-mission or co-mission that don’t leave its mark…
“We burn off a forest, an’ all we see is the cleared land, an’ the profit. We burn the forest because we say it’s ours to burn, an’ we can do what we want with what’s ours. We burn it, an’ the birds leave, an’ the grubs come, and the grain don’t grow so good. And there’s hot winds and dust.
“We plow up the prairie because it’s ours to plow, and we dam up the cricks because they’re ours to dam. We grab everything we can while the grabbin’s good, because it’s ours an’ because some other fellow will do it if we don’t. … And, hell, there ain’t nothin that’s really ours, and we don’t know what’s in the other fellow’s mind. …
Other crime writers would excel in the western genre, such as Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker and Frank Gruber. But perhaps Thompson’s greatness in this field came from his experiences living a wild and eccentric life. The son of a corrupt Texas Sheriff, Thompson understood the mentality of western towns where power is concentrated in the hands of a few and the ideals of the American dream are drowned in a sea of blood and lawlessness, themes he appropriated so successfully in western-themed crime novels such as The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Pop 1280 (1964). Heed the Thunder (which was also released under the the more pulp sounding title Sins of the Fathers) ends with an intriguing author’s note:
I was about to pronounce this book the first of a trilogy when the ghost of a hawk-faced old man prodded me with an ethereal cane, “How the hell you know it will be?” he jeered, “Goddam if you ain’t a good one!”
And upon the taunt, there came another, in choked explosive tones, “Maybe I had ought to cut his ears off, seein’ he don’t plan to use ’em.”
So I will say this:
This may be the first volume of a trilogy; there may be a sequel to it – if, in the present book, I seem to have interested or amused sufficent readers to warrant such.
Sure enough the two sequels to Heed the Thunder never came. Thompson’s literary greatness lay elsewhere, in another genre.