I read this book in two days and with a growing sense of unease and disbelief. The main character, Lou Ford, makes a great villain. A deputy sheriff in a small Texas town, he is obsessed with righting a wrong. His brother, Mike, was killed by Chester Conway, the corrupt businessman who controls the town. Ford hatches a plan to kill Conway’s son and a local prostitute – a woman he loves – and make it look like a murder-suicide. Straightforward revenge tale? Not quite. Mike was jailed for a sex crime that Lou was responsible for – and Lou has violent tendencies, what he calls The Sickness. In total, he murders four people, including the girl who loves him before he is caught and is about as classic a sociopathic nut-job as you get in fiction. He checks every point of the 20 on the Hare Psychopathy checklist, from ‘glibness/superficial charm’ to ‘lack of remorse or guilt’. I know that the book was written in 1952 and that the checklist wasn’t compiled until the 1970s but Thompson had obviously researched the studies of morbid psychology of the time – at the end of the book he even lists the volumes in the library of Ford’s doctor father; Kraft-Ebing, Jung, Freud, Bleuler, Adolf Meyer, Kretschmer, Kraepelin. The key thing is that Ford is not the antagonist, he is the protagonist, with everything seen from his point of view as first person narrator. The author, Jim Thompson, clearly has some sympathy for him.
But should the reader feel sympathy for someone who is so bad, someone who is almost the epitome of evil? In Breaking Bad you feel sympathy for Walter White but then I don’t think that he murders anyone himself – if he does it is in desperate self-defence. He has fallen into crime rather than sought it out. You think: ‘in the right circumstances that could be me’. But Lou Ford murders a woman who loves him with his fists. Slowly. The justification seems to be that his father shamed and punished him for having an underage affair with a housekeeper which made him want to get his own back on women in general. And the hick one-horse town he lives in has made him feel bored, resentful and trapped. Obviously, a jury would never acquit on that defence. He’d get the chair or life, probably one of those 200 year joke sentences (the joke being that no-one lives to 200). Or more probably committal to a mental hospital.
If everyone acted like Lou Ford, society would quickly break down and it would become like one of those apocalyptic zombie films. We need rules and most of us readily accept them. ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.’ ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.’ ‘Live and let live.’ We all depend on the kindness of strangers.
The Killer Inside Me was a fascinating and courageous thought experiment. As Steven King said ‘Thompson had three brave lets. He let himself see everything, he let himself write it down and then he let himself publish it.’ But it can’t be a model for the modern crime novel. Can it?