Jim Thompson, Novelist and Essayist
Jim Thompson, Novelist and Essayist Born 1964, Died 2nd August 2014
Forty-nine years is a short time to be resident on this spinning rock hurling around a star. We mourn those who leave us at such an early age. We wonder why fate has shortened their time among us, deprived us of the pleasure of their company, their words, and their wisdom.
In the case of Jim Thompson, the forty-nine years is a deceptive number. He packed a couple of hundred years of passion, learning, observation, travel and writing in that forty-nine year box. A man or a woman would need to live a very long time to have accumulated Jim’s experience of the world. And that’s how I think of Jim—someone who belonged to the world. He’s left behind a powerful legacy in his Kari Vaara series.
All of us at International Crime Authors Reality Check send our condolences to Jim Thompson’s family, friends and many fans. Jim contributed twenty-seven essays to our website. His first essay titled “Who has the right to write?” ran on 2nd December 2011. Jim’s final blog titled “On the Brinks” appeared on 20th February 2013.
Jim was born in Kentucky in 1964 and died in Finland on 2nd August 2014. He authored five crime novels set in Finland. Kari Vaara, police chief in the town of Kittilä, Lapland, debuted in Thompson’s first novel, Snow Angels. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Thompson_(author)
A summary of Jim’s life, in his own words is posted on the author’s bio page at Amazon.
I maintained an email correspondence with Jim both before and after his time as a blogger on this site. In November 2011, I had invited Jim to join the blog and he replied with questions about our focus. I wrote him, “The main thing is to bring a new perspective to thinking about the nature of crime, law enforcement, social issues such as poverty, fairness, inequality, and gender into the mix.”
Jim replied, “Deal. My Inspector Vaara novels focus on exactly these themes, as do my rants in interviews, so this fits in perfectly with my agenda. I’ll have the first piece for the 28th. And thanks again. I’m looking forward to being part of this.”
In June 2012, Jim emailed me, “It’s terribly difficult to find people I would like to have a conversation with, or ideally a few conversations, to delve into subjects, but I can only think of three, counting you, and we’re all so far flung that it’s terribly difficult. My idea is to convince book fair organizers to invite people like you and me to the same events. For instance, I’m going to the Semana Negra noir festival in Spain in July. If we could make it to the same festivals, we could hang out for a week, and all expenses paid.” Unfortunately that didn’t plan out. I’d been invited in 2007 and Jim was invited for 2012.
Jim was passionate about social and cultural problems such as racism, and we corresponded about our views on how to deal with these issues in fiction. He was a truth teller, no matter where that truth led him or how much difficulty he confronted with those who wished to hide the truth.
Jim wrote me in June 2012, “Racism. A difficult topic to write about, especially for a primarily American audience who call nigger “the N-word,” as if pretending as if it doesn’t exist will make it disappear. I mostly just write the truth in the details of books, things I’ve observed. I think many publishers wouldn’t have released Helsinki White. My editor at Putnam has been supportive. A lovely person, she often surprises me.”
How to put a writer’s life into context? My friend Roger Beaumont, in observing the passing of his friend, reminded me of this Shakespeare quote, one that I believe that Jim would have liked:
Be cheerful, sir. Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air. And like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself – Yea, all which it inherit – shall dissolve, And like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
Words. Those are the legacy left behind. The life of a writer continues to live after he’s gone. Death robs us of friendship and support, but the words we remember and they remain. Whether any writer’s words disappear into the void or are passed down from generation to generation, no one can predict. It’s as close to immortality as any man or woman who lacks the resources to build an Angkor Wat. The future, a place where you and I will never visit, is as much a place as the now. The future is the destination where flocks of words take wing and seek a nest. And I am betting that the birds of wisdom that Jim released will find a roost in that distant place.
In memory of Jim, we are posting his classic essay about the passing of another young writer Stieg Larsson that was posted on this website in January 2012:
Breaking News: Stieg Larsson is Dead
By Jim Thompson
That’s right. I said it out loud. Larsson is dead, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of such unsettling news, but he’s not coming back. Despite being anointed the literary Son of God by the media. Despite article after article predicting who will be the next Stieg Larson, he’s dead. He died, and the requisite three days and resurrection have long since come and gone, so apparently he won’t rise from the dead. Or if he did, he’s keeping mum about it. My cat, Sulo, was born around the time that Larsson died. Maybe Sulo, a foundling but presumably of Nordic origin, is the reincarnation of Stieg Larsson, unable to reveal himself because of a lack of prehensile digits that render him incapable of holding a pen or typing. It’s possible, but I doubt it.
Day after day after mindless day, critics, reviewers and journalists tout yet another Nordic writer as the next Stieg Larsson. I myself have been compared to Steig Larsson dozens if not hundreds of times. Our work has little in common. I don’t mind though, it helps me sell books and earn a living.
As nearly as I can tell, every inhabitant of the Nordic region able to string enough words together to form a coherent sentence is a potential next Stieg Larsson. Some months ago, I read a quote in a Finnish newspaper, discussing Purge (Puhdistus) citing a British newspaper extolling Sofi Oksanen as the next Stieg Larsson, and referring to Oksanen as a ‘crime writer.’ I quote neither the original publication nor the writer in question, because I can’t make myself believe that anyone could make such a moronic mistake, and the British newspaper is unavailable on the internet without a subscription, so I couldn’t check this fact for myself.
Still, either the author of the piece or its translator apparently misunderstands the meaning of crime fiction. I will enlighten. Crime fiction is a genre that explores crimes and their detection, criminals and their motives. I’m a crime writer by profession and so fairly certain about this. The aforementioned author writes mainstream literary fiction, and is extremely talented, but no more a crime writer than I am the author of Harlequin romances. Or could it be, just possibly be, that the writer of the original article knows what crime fiction is, but didn’t know that Oksanen isn’t a crime writer because the journalist in question hasn’t read a single word of her work? That the journalist just wanted to spew out the name, Stieg Larsson, in the hopes that it would sell more newspapers? Nah, now I’m just being silly.
Please don’t conclude from this essay that I don’t like Stieg Larsson’s novels. I think they’re too fat and under-edited, but I enjoyed his first two books, haven’t read the last one yet. And further, I think society owes a collective debt to Stieg Larsson. Once in a great while, a writer comes along who sparks the popular imagination: Larsson, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown. Whether you like their books or not, their tremendous popularity encourages people to read, and many people have discovered the joys of reading because of them. In today’s world of fractured attention spans and the plethora of entertainments to choose from (and reading is one of the few common entertainments of our time that makes you smarter, not dumber), that’s no easy trick. Still, Larsson is gone, there will be no next Larsson, nor should there be. His body of work was unique, and what the world needs is new and unique voices to spirit us away.
This constant harping about who will be the next Larsson is simply an exploitation of his name, in a way I feel demeaning to his memory, and repeating Larsson’s name over and over again like a printed mantra in the belief that it will sell more papers is insulting to the reading public.
Journalists, critics, reviewers, I’m pleading with you. Stop this madness and move on before I cut my own throat out of ennui. Find fresh voices, new ideas, authors that expose the world to us in a way we’ve never before encountered. I think Stieg Larsson might have wanted it that way.
In a few closing words on the subject, let me say only this, in the hopes of getting a few more web hits and reposts: Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson.
Get it now? Annoying, isn’t it?
Some Thoughts on the Scandinavian Crime Wave
I didn’t know I was a Scandinavian Crime Wave writer until Snow Angels came out internationally, and a number of reviewers said that I am one. Here in Finland, despite my nationality, I’m often considered a domestic writer, and obviously I write noir, but I never gave my placement as a writer much thought beyond that. Probably because I’ve never cared about it, I just want to write good stories. It didn’t really sink in until I was in a bookstore in Barcelona, and saw Snow Angels (in Spanish: (Ángeles en la Nieve) placed alongside works by Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, etc. Some reviews have said that I’m clearly influenced by the work of Arnaldur Indriðason. Sorry, never read any. I guess now I will though. Reviewers also sometimes inform that I’m influenced by Ian Rankin. I had never read any of his books either, so I picked one up (good stuff), and I see where they got that idea, but wrong. Sorry, I’m digressing…the point is I’m part of a literary movement, some might even call it a genre, and didn’t even know it until I was told so.
So what is the Scandinavian Crime Wave, where did it come from, and why is it so popular?
First, I’m not a huge fan of the genre myself, and the reason is obvious. I’ve lived for well over a decade in a Nordic country, and so unlike most international readers, authors exposing this part of the world and its way of life are telling me things I already know. Second, the protagonists in the genre tend to be middle-aged, divorced men, sick of their jobs and have drinking problems. They’re depressed, their kids don’t like them, etc., and I’m bored with the stereotype at this point. Which isn’t to say I don’t like some Nordic crime writing. I do. I enjoy Larsson, Mankell (I’m using these names in particular because most readers of this article will likely be familiar with them, so let’s stick with them), and some others, it’s just that my tastes are more eclectic.
Larsson, to the casual observer, because of his overwhelming popularity, might be considered the father of the genre, which is a mistake, but more about that later. He was a good writer, but I have some mild criticisms. I haven’t read The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest yet, but by the end of The Girl who Played With Fire, he had set Lisbeth Salander up as a kind of dysfunctional waif superhero. She has a photographic memory, and the implication and setup for the last book seems to be that she has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is supposed to explain her sociopathy. Now, I think Salander is a brilliant character, but there are a couple problems here that I’ve never seen commented upon, and they bother me. 1. There is no proof that photographic memory exists. There are people documented as possessing vast powers of memory, but as written for the Salander character, nope, sorry, not buying it. 2. Granted, the symptoms of Asperger’s vary so much from individual to individual that they’re nearly unique, but Salander just doesn’t fit the profile. I researched these topics in-depth for a book released in Finland, Jumalan Nimeen, and I feel confident about these statements. If you disagree, sit in front of your computer for a few days and read some hundreds of blogs by people with Asperger’s and see if any of their voices remind you of Salander. I know I’m digressing again, but what the hell, it’s my article.
My analysis of the reason behind the success of the Millennium series, in brief: I’ve never heard anyone say the Millennium Trilogy was well written, yet it sold a gazillion copies. As I said, I don’t find Salander a believable character. A pint-sized Superwoman. But here’s the rub. She’s been brutalized as a child and an adult. She’s emotionally damaged beyond words. Her appearance is diminutive and child-like. Everything about her screams victim. But she overcomes all. She finds a way to live life on her own terms and refuses to be a victim. When others try to victimize her, she punishes them in the most vicious ways. The kinds of punishments people dream about when figures in their own lives mistreat them. It sends the message that no matter how cruelly life treats you, you can overcome it and survive, even thrive. I think it’s that message that made the series a success.
But people who do love the Scandinavian Crime Wave genre. Why? Obviously, they’re getting something they lacked from novels by authors from other regions. At least for U.S. and UK readers, I suspect a prime reason is the aforementioned cultural reading experience, but also and more importantly, is that the depth of characterization in the best of Nordic crime fiction is, in my humble opinion, often far superior to that of most crime novels on the bestseller lists by writers from those regions. Yet another difference between Nordic and Anglo crime fiction is the weighting of the crime vs. social commentary in the novels. In Nordic fiction, the crime is often no more important, sometimes of less importance, than the descriptions of the societies in which the stories take place. All this hints to me that the international reading community is bored with cardboard crime novels and demands something more and better.
Mankell is sometimes referred to as the father of Scandinavian crime fiction. Yet his first book, Faceless Killers, in the much acclaimed Wallander series, didn’t appear until 1997. What, in the formation of the Scandinavian Crime Wave, preceded it?
The Scandinavian Crime Wave truly originated with the Martin Beck series, a decalogue written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö between 1965 and 1975. Although they seem a bit dated by today’s writing standards, I love this series. They feature a great cast of characters and solid crimes. Most notably, in terms of this discussion, is that they contain scathing critiques of Sweden’s social democracy, from a Marxist viewpoint. These critiques sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, delivered by an omniscient third person narrator, and this technique, to me, carries with it an almost Victorian feel, hence my comment about dated writing. However, these small tirades are often delivered with humor that I think enhances rather than detracts from the writing as a whole.
I read that Larsson’s Millenium trilogy was intended as a decalogue, but he died before he got further along in it, which makes me tend to think that, at least to some extent, the Millenium series was intended as a homage to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I think you would be hard put to find a Nordic crime writer who would disagree with this statement: no Martin Beck series, no Scandinavian Crime Wave as it exists in its current form.
So, who influenced Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö? I read an interview with Mankell, in which he stated that Ed McBain influenced the Martin Beck series. This doesn’t surprise me. I did some minor research to try and find out if Sjöwall and Wahlöö had mentioned their influences, but found nothing. Per Wahlöö died in 1975, but Maj Sjöwall is still with us, so I had a look to see if her contact information was readily available. I thought it would be fun to just e-mail or even call her and ask about this. However, I didn’t find it, and thought that if her contact info is hard to find, she values her privacy and doesn’t want to be bothered.
When I read the Beck series though, I get the distinct impression that it’s heavily influenced by noir and pulp. As well as McBain, I see echoes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and even Jim Thompson (not me of course, the guy who wrote The Killer Inside Me, etc.). If I’m correct about this, the Scandinavian Crime Wave of today was in part born in the U.S.A. and took the long way home over the course of the better part of a century. And so, in a sense, the Scandinavian Crime Wave is in part a retro movement. I’ve long considered myself in some ways to be a retro writer, but that’s the topic of another discussion.
Also interesting to me is that the bleak outlook of noir and pulp and their tales of social injustice have often carried with them fascist ideals through the voices of their narrators, but that, in the hands of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, they turned those nihilistic societal worldviews into left-wing arguments, and to good effect. And so in retrospect, their work makes all crime noir seem like socialist propaganda. Does this mean that all these years, I’ve been writing political and crime noir and protagonists with sociopathic tendencies and never knew I was a Communist sympathizer in disguise? Me. A Comsymp. Whodda thunk?
James Thompson Helsinki, Finland 24.01.2012