The Grifters by Jim Thompson

Hardboiled crime novels have never been my cup of tea but, for a project I’ve been kicking around, it’s something I have started researching. The Grifters was on the dollar rack at Half Price (yeah, I do get 90% of my books there it seems), along with some Elmore Leonrad, so I grabbed it. It’s a gritty read that touches on the life of a con, some bizarre oedipal urges, and has all of the expected beatings, killings and loving.

What stood out the most was the character Carol Roberg. In a book centered around cons, she is the antithesis of the con and has endured a hardship and horror the other three characters can’t approach (she was in a German concentration camp where she was subjected to sexual experiments by German doctors). She’s the character Lilly comes the closest to and the closest thing Roy comes to a relationship where he is emotionally invested. Her recounting of what she experienced in the concentration camp is also what upsets Roy the most in the story, while Lilly avoids a conversation about it altogether.

The avoidance by Roy and Lilly, as well as their strong attractions to Carol, says something about them. One, they are not as hard as they make themselves out to be, though Lilly proves she a bit harder when the end rolls around. Another is that it emphasizes how similar they are, though at different points in the road of the life of the con. They both seek the same thing, though it’s clear Lilly understands this more than Roy. They both want normality, the opportunity to lead a life that doesn’t involve being hit with a ball bat or burned with a zippo. The chance to settle into a routine. We see Roy continually strive for this, even while working his cons and against the advice of other cons. He settles down in LA and moves around the town a lot through a sales job, and quietly and quickly stockpiles a large amount of cash. He continually dreams of saving enough for retirement, which is really the same as a normal life just without the working.

For her part, Lilly wants Roy to go for this life as much as she wants it herself. And she works to place Carol in Roy’s path with the hope that he would take it. Which he does, but which may also lead to Lilly’s later hardness towards him.

Being what it is, the ending comes hard and fast and leaves little to question. It’s a quick read that isn’t shy about meeting the expectations of the genre, but at the same time it exceeds them. Beyond being merely a crime novel with throw away characters as placeholders in the plot, they stick with you afterwards. Despite the briefness of the work, they feel complete. You feel you know them and they don’t do anything out of character.

While I’m still not wholly won over to the form, and prefer Haruki Murakami’s forays into it quite a bit more, it’s still quite a bit more than your run of the mill pulp novel.

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