The Grifters by Jim Thompson

The Grifters by Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson’s novels are dark, even in a genre marked by brutality. Like most people, I was familiar with the Grifters from the 1990 movie starring John Cusack, Angelica Huston and Annette Bening. While the movie follows the same broad plot lines as the novel, all three leads in the movie bring a natural charisma to the roles that romanticizes the lives of these disreputable characters.

On some levels, this is appropriate. Roy Dillon has devoted his live to presenting a charming facade. It’s a critical skill for a short-con operator. It’s hard not to be pulled in by that charm but the novel contains a critical scene that is omitted from the film. It’s a scene that serves as a wake up call, reminding the reader that there is nothing romantic about the twisted paths these characters have chosen.

Upon being released from the hospital, Roy is cared for at home by a visiting nurse. Roy seduces the nurse but is worried that she is too innocent for his tastes and so he asks her outright if she is a virgin. She tells him she is not and Roy takes this as a green light. Afterwards he pressing her on her sexual history and finds that, as a child of eight, she was raped repeatedly at Dachau. Roy is furious with her. He views this revelation as a betrayal and immediately and brutally breaks things off with her. In justifying his actions, Roy rationalizes the holocaust and blames the Jews as being responsible for their own plight.

It’s a horrifying look into the depths of his character’s depravity. On some levels, I find Roy Dillon to be a more disturbing character than Lou Ford, the sociopathic protagonist of Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me.  Sociopaths are a dime a dozen but Roy Dillon justifies his horrible actions with a profound level of conscious self-delusion.

Thompson’s novels don’t shrink away from these sorts of horrible character revelations. The darker side of human nature is not just hinted at in Thompson’s work, it’s examined with unblinking clarity.

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