Savage Nightby Jim Thompson
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Is Carl Bigelow a fresh-faced college kid looking for a room, or is he a poised hit man tracking down his victim? And if Carl is really two people, what about everyone around him? Savage Night is Thompson at his best, with plot reversals and nightmarish shifts of identity.
My favorite crime novelist-often imitated but never duplicated."Stephen King"
If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich would have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it...His work...casts a dazzling light on the human condition."Washington Post"
Like Clint Eastwood's pictures it's the stuff for rednecks, truckers, failures, psychopaths and professors ... one of the finest American writers and the most frightening, [Thompson] is on best terms with the devil. Read Jim Thompson and take a tour of hell."The New Republic"
The master of the American groin-kick novel."Vanity Fair"
The most hard-boiled of all the American writers of crime fiction."Chicago Tribune
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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- 5.15(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.45(d)
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I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York -- three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man -- hadn't helped it any. I felt lousy by the time I arrived in Peardale. For the first time in years, there was a faint trace of blood in my spit.
I walked through the little Long Island Railway station, and stood looking up the main street of Peardale. It was about four blocks long, splitting the town into two ragged halves. It ended at the teachers' college, a half-dozen red brick buildings scattered across a dozen acres or so of badly tended campus. The tallest business building was three stories. The residences looked pretty ratty.
I started coughing a little, and lighted a cigarette to quiet it. I wondered whether I could risk a few drinks to pull me out of my hangover. I needed them. I picked up my two suitcases and headed up the street.
It was probably partly due to my mood, but the farther I got into Peardale the less I liked it. The whole place had a kind of decayed, dying-on-the-vine appearance. There wasn't any local industry apparently; just the farm trade. And you don't have commuters in a town ninety-five miles from New York City. The teachers' college doubtless helped things along a little, but I figured it was damned little. There was something sad about it, something that reminded me of bald-headed men who comb their side hair across the top.
I walked a couple blocks without sighting a bar, either on the main drag or the side streets. Sweating, trembling a little inside, I set the suitcase down and lighted another cigarette. I coughed some more. I cursed The Man tomyself, calling him every kind of a son-of-a-bitch I could think of.
I'd have given everything I had just to be back at the filling station in Arizona.
But it couldn't be that way. It was either me and The Man's thirty grand, or no me, no nothing.
I'd stopped in front of a store, a shoe store, and as I straightened I caught a glimpse of myself in the window. I wasn't much to look at. You could say I'd improved a hundred per cent in the last eight or nine years, and you wouldn't be lying. But I still didn't add up to much. It wasn't that my kisser would stop clocks, understand, or anything like that. It was on account of my size. I looked like a boy trying to look like a man. I was just five feet tall.
I turned away from the window, then turned back again. I wasn't supposed to have much dough, but I didn't need to be rolling in it to wear good shoes. New shoes had always done something for me. They made me feel like something, even if I couldn't look it. I went inside.
There was a little showcase full of socks and garters up near the front, and a chubby middle-aged guy, the proprietor, I guess, was bending over it reading a newspaper. He barely glanced up at me, then jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
"Right up the street there, sonny," he said. "Those red brick buildings you see."
"What?" I said. "I -- "
"That's right. You just go right on up there, and they'll fix you up. Tell you what boarding house to go to and anything else you need to know."
"Look," I said. "I -- "
"You do that, sonny."
If there's anything I don't like to be called, it's sonny. If there's a goddamned thing in the world I don't like to be called, it's sonny. I swung the suitcases high as I could and let them drop. They came down with a jar that almost shook the glasses off his nose.
I walked back to the fitting chairs and sat down. He followed me, red-faced and hurt-looking, and sat down on the stool in front of me.
"You didn't need to do that," he said, reproachfully. "I'd watch that temper if I were you."
He was right; I was going to have to watch it. "Sure," I grinned. "It just kind of gets my goat to be called sonny. You probably feel the same way when people call you fatty."
He started to scowl, then shifted it into a laugh. He wasn't a bad guy, I guess. Just a nosy know-it-all small-towner. I asked for size five double-A elevators, and he began dragging the job out to get in as many questions as possible.
Was I going to attend the teachers' college? Wasn't I entering a little late in the term? Had I got myself a place to stay yet?
I said that I'd been delayed by sickness, and that I was going to stay at the J.C. Winroy residence.
"Jake Winroy's!" He looked up sharply. "Why you don't -- why are you staying there?"
"Mainly because of the price," I said. "It was the cheapest place for board and room the college had listed."
"Uh-huh," he nodded, "and do you know why it's cheap, son -- young man? Because there ain't no one else that will stay there."
I let my mouth drop open. I sat staring at him, worried looking. "Gosh," I said. "You don't mean he's that Winroy?"
"Yes, sir!" He bobbed his head triumphantly. "That's just who he is, the very same! The man who handled the payoff for that big horse-betting ring."
"Gosh," I said again. "Why I thought he was in jail!"
He smiled at me pityingly. "You're way behind the times, s -- what'd you say your name was?"
"Bigelow. Carl Bigelow."
"Well, you're way behind on your news, Carl. Jake's been out for -- well -- six-seven months now. Got pretty sick of jail, I reckon. Just couldn't take it even if the big boys were paying him plenty to stay there and keep his mouth shut."
I kept on looking worried and kind of scared.
"Understand, now, I'm not saying that you won't be perfectly all right there at the Winroy place. They've got one other boarder -- not a student, a fellow that works over to the bakery -- and he seems to do all right. There hasn't been a detective around the house in weeks."
"Detectives!" I said.
"Sure. To keep Jake from being killed. Y'see, Carl" -he spelled it out for me, like someone talking to an idiot child -- "Y'see Jake is the key witness in that big bookie case. He's the only one who can put the finger on all them crooked politicians and judges and so on who were taking bribes. So when he agrees to turn state's evidence and they let him out of jail, the cops are afraid he might get killed."
"D-did -- " My voice shook; talking with this clown was doing me a lot of good. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. "Did anyone ever try it?"
"Huh-uh ... Stand up a minute, Carl. Feel okay? Well, let's try the other shoe ... Nope, no one ever tried it. And the more you think about it, the easier it is to see why. The public just ain't much interested in seeing those bookies prosecuted, as things stand now. They can't see why it's so wrong to bet with a bookie when it's all right to bet at the track. But taking bets is one thing, and murder is another. The public wouldn't go for that, and o'course everyone know who was responsible. Them bookies would be out of business. There'd be such a stink the politicians would < I>have to stage a cleanup, no matter how they hated to."
I nodded. He'd hit the nail right on the head. Jake Winroy couldn't be murdered. At least he couldn't be murdered in a way that looked like murder.
"What do you think will happen, then?" I said. "They'll just let Ja -- Mr. Winroy go ahead and testify?"
"Sure," he snorted, "if he lives long enough. They'll let him testify when the case comes to trial -- forty or fifty years from now ... Want to wear 'em?"
"Yeah. And just throw the old ones away," I said.
"Yep, that's the way it's working out. Stalling. Getting the case postponed. They've already done it twice, and they'll keep right on doing it. I'd be willing to bet a hundred dollars that the case never does get into court!"
He'd have lost his money. The trial was set for three months from now, and it wouldn't be postponed.
"Well," I said, "that's the way it goes, I guess. I'm glad you think it'll be all right for me to stay with the Winroys."
"Sure," he winked at me. "Might even have yourself a little fun. Mrs. Winroy is quite a stepper -- not that I'm saying anything against her, understand."
"Of course not," I said. "Quite a -- uh -- stepper, huh?"
"Looks like she could be, anyways, if she had the chance. Jake married her after he left here and moved to New York -- after he was riding high, wide and handsome. It must be quite a comedown for her, living like she has to now."
I moved up to the front of the store with him to get my change.
I turned left at the first corner, and walked down an unpaved side street. There were no houses on it, only the rear end of the corner business building on one side of the alley, and a fenced-in backyard on the other. The sidewalk was a narrow, rough-brick path, but it felt good under my feet. I felt taller, more on even terms with the world. The job didn't look so lousy any more. I hadn't wanted it and I still didn't. But now it was mostly because of Jake.
The poor bastard was kind of like me. He hadn't been anything, but he'd done his damnedest to be something. He'd pulled out of this hick town, and got himself a barber's job in New York. It was the only work he knew -- the only thing he knew anything about -- so he'd done that. He'd got himself into exactly the right shop, one down around City Hall. He'd played up to exactly the right customers, laughing over their corny jokes, kissing their tails, making them trust him. When the smashup came, he hadn't swung a razor in years and he was handling a million-dollar-a-month payoff.
The poor bastard, no looks, no education, no nothing -and he'd pulled himself up to the top. And now he was back on the bottom again. Running the one-chair barber shop he'd started with, trying to make a little dough out of the Winroy family residence that was too run-down to sell.
All the jack he'd made in the rackets was gone. The state had latched onto part of it and the federal government had taken another big bite, and lawyers had eaten up the rest. All he had was his wife, and the dope was that he couldn't get a kind word out of her, let alone anything else.
I walked along thinking about him, feeling sorry for him; and I didn't really notice the big black Cadillac pulled up at the side of the street nor the man sitting in it. I was just about to pass on by when I heard a, "Psst!" and I saw that it was Fruit Jar.
I dropped the suitcases, and stepped off the curb.
"You stupid pissant," I said. "What's the idea?"
"Temper." He grinned at me, his eyes narrowing. "What's your idea, sonny? Your train got in an hour ago."
I shook my head, too sore to answer him. I knew The Man hadn't put him on me. If The Man had been afraid of a runout, I wouldn't have been here.
"Beat it," I said. "Goddam you, if you don't get out of town and stay out, I will."
"Yeah? What do you think The Man will say about that?"
"You tell him," I said. "Tell him you drove down here in a circus wagon and stopped me on the street."
He wet his lips, uneasily. I lighted a cigarette, dropped the package into my pocket and brought my hand out. I slid it along the back of the seat.
"Nothing to get excited about," he mumbled. "You'll get into the city Saturday? The Man'll be back, and -- oof!"
"That's a switchblade," I said. "You've got about an eighth of an inch in your neck. Like to have a little more?"
"You crazy bas -- oof!"
I laughed and let the knife drop down upon the seat.
"Take it with you," I said. "I've been meaning to throw it away. And tell The Man I'll look forward to seeing him."
He cursed me, ramming the car into gear. He took off so fast I had to jump back to keep from going with him.
Grinning, I went back to the walk.
I'd been waiting for an excuse to hand one to Fruit Jar. Right from the beginning, when he'd first made contact with me in Arizona, he'd been picking at me. I hadn't done anything to him -- but right away he was riding me, calling me kid, and sonny. I wondered what was behind it.
Fruit Jar needed dough like a boar hog needs tits. He'd dropped out of the bootleg racket before the war and gone into used cars. Now he was running lots in Brooklyn and Queens; he was making more money legit -- if you can call used cars legit -- than he'd ever made with the booze.
But if he hadn't wanted to come in, why was he coming in so much farther than he had to? He hadn't needed to come down here today. In fact, The Man wasn't going to like it a bit. So ... So?
I was still thinking when I reached the Winroy residence.
Copyright © 1981 renewed by Alberta H. Thompson.
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Meet the Author
Jim Thompson was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma. He began writing fiction at a very young age, selling his first story to True Detectivewhen he was only fourteen. Thompson eventually wrote twenty-nine novels, all but three of which were published as paperback originals. Thompson also co-wrote two screenplays (for the Stanley Kubrick films The Killing and Paths of Glory). Several of his novels have been filmed by American and French directors, resulting in classic noir including The Killer Inside Me (1952), After Dark My Sweet(1955), and The Grifters (1963).
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I'd read shadowy references to Jim Thompson for years but it was only recently that I took the plunge and ordered several of his novels from Barnes & Noble. SAVAGE NIGHT was the first to arrive and by default became my introduction to this author, and what a baptism of fire 'and misanthropy, sleaze, and blood' it was. SAVAGE NIGHT is told in the first person by a new arrival in town, who calls himself 'Carl Bigelow.' That he's really a mob-connected hit man assigned to do a job on one of the local sleazoids will come as no shock to film noir fans but his appearance and past history are like no other--outside the dark and skewed world of Mr. Thompson. The town itself is a bleak place within 90 miles of New York City, whose main industries are a teacher's college, a bakery and a couple of bars. The novel was written in the 1940s but I saw a few towns like this on Sunday drives back in the Sixties. Within minutes of landing in Peardale, Bigelow starts ingratiating himself with the townsfolk and playing them for suckers in his attempt to nail the man he came to murder. In SAVAGE NIGHT everyone has an angle and if they're not conniving someone else they're planning to, given half a chance. Or they're a pathetic victim like crippled housekeeper Ruthie--who just might have a deadly angle of her own... Peardale might just as well have been named 'Waterloo' where Bigelow is concerned. It's here that his downward spiral begins. His alcoholism and illness rise up against him and he goofs so many times that one wonders how he survived in the murder business to begin with. The ending, not to give anything away, is as gruesome as anything in the gore novels and horror films of today. SAVAGE NIGHT is extremely well-written. A youngster reading this would feel that he or she was actually in Peardale in 1946. At the same time it's surreal and goes against several literary conventions including one concerning first-person narration. I'd be the last person to put down Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane--entertaining authors all--but Jim Thompson makes them all look like Dr. Suess. If you've read Thompson before you know what I'm talking about. The rest of you have been warned.
This book realy caught me by surprise. I only chose this book because of how thin it was. I had to choose a book to read and this is the one I grabbed because of it's size. But to my surprise, I realy enjoyed it. I intend on reading more of his novels.