A tour through noir writer Jim Thompson's San Diego
|By D.A. Kolodenko|
It's a tale of crime fiction, despair and the bottle
San Diego likes to claim the great 20th-century hardboiled detective writer Raymond Chandler as much as Los Angeles does. Although Chandler wrote about the City of Angels more definitively, it's well known that he wrote The Long Goodbye, Little Sister and Playback in La Jolla, where he lived in the late '40s and '50s. Playback, his last novel, was even set there.
Tours of Chandler's San Diego are well-documented online in blogs: people visit his extant but renovated house in La Jolla; the soon-to-be-demolished Whaling Bar in the La Valencia Hotel, where several scenes in Playback take place; and his gravesite at Mount Hope Cemetery.
But Chandler isn't the only legendary crime writer to have lived and written in San Diego. The other is Jim Thompson.
Maybe you've never heard of him.
But you might've seen Michael Winterbottom's 2010 adaptation of Jim Thompson's 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me, one of the most contentious films in recent years, starring Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba. The controversy revolved around the film's graphic depiction of violence against women by psychotic Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford.
Winterbottom's defense of his depiction of extreme brutality was in part that he was being faithful to Thompson's book, whose first-person narration took readers boldly, horribly, directly inside the messed-up mind of a mentally ill killer. Whether or not one accepts Winterbottom's defense (most don't), few questioned its accuracy— probably because most of the critics who hated the movie hadn't read the book.
Thompson's books sold OK in his day, but not well, and not for long. They supplemented a living that he largely squandered in a loop of alcoholism and recovery—when he lived in San Diego during the 1940s, he was in and out of rehab 27 times. His novels were published as pulp fiction— those luridly packaged pocketbooks printed on cheap pulp paper that were the mid-20th-century version of today's grocery-store books—and, to this day, such genre fiction is often ghettoized as second-class literature.
Yet even as their literary reputations have been shaped by the perceived limitations of the crime genre, the best classic-noir writers, like Chandler and Thompson, whose work has endured and defined the motifs of the genre, also elevated it, making it both visceral and meaningful.
In The Killer Inside Me, Deputy Ford attempts to seduce us into seeing things his way, as Thompson filters the novel's world through Ford's banal, folksy, yet sadistic, perspective. Thompson's remarkable fabrication of this wildly untrustworthy voice is what gives the novel its power as a work of art, and what makes the cold objectivity of the camera in the film feel like a failure.
Although The Killer Inside Me is fatalistic rather than redemptive, the antecedent that it brings to mind for most readers is Crime and Punishment. Writer Geoffrey O'Brien once called Thompson a "dime-store Dostoyevsky," and the description fits.
Thompson's stories are depraved but also tragic, surreal and experimental in perspective and form. It's hard not to recognize the literary merit in his effort to expose the horrible heart of a broken mind.
The Killer Inside Me was Thompson's fourth novel, and his second published true noir. His first was written in San Diego, where he lived during the 1940s, at the beginning of his emergence as a crime author.
What follows here is a guide to Jim Thompson's San Diego, should you be brave enough to take a detour from your reality to trace the footsteps of a man with a very troubled mind from which rose some savagely brilliant art.
In his definitive 1995 National Book Critics Circle award-winning biography of Thompson, Savage Art, Robert Polito recounts the journey that led Thompson to San Diego: He came to California in 1940 with his wife, kids, mother and cousin from his home state of Oklahoma to deliver his friend Woody Guthrie's Plymouth sedan to a Communist Party lawyer in San Francisco.
Thompson had been a writer most of his life, publishing journalism and short fiction in periodicals since he was a teenager. A disillusioned communist who'd directed the Oklahoma Federal Writer's Project and written an unpublished working-class oral history, Thompson arrived in San Diego a 34-year-old raging alcoholic who considered himself a complete failure. He'd grown up in the shadow of his charismatic but financially unstable father, a smalltown Oklahoma sheriff who was disgraced out of his job and was always on the run, sometimes from his own family. Resentment toward his father became a central theme to work through in his fiction.
At the urging of his wife, Alberta, Thompson tried to get work writing in Hollywood but had no luck. There he met the great screenwriter Samuel Fuller in a bar in Hollywood. Polito doesn't identify it, but my guess is it was Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, Thompson's favorite Hollywood hangout, popular among hardboiled writers like Chandler and Sam Fuller. The bar remains entirely unchanged and would make an excellent out-of-San Diego destination on your Thompson tour. Fuller invited him to National City for a Christmas party at the home of celebrated writer Nathaniel West, who would die tragically less than two weeks later with his wife in a car crash near El Centro.
Thompson's cousin Neddie and her husband lived in a small house in Bankers Hill, and took in Jim's family. Thompson took a job scraping paint off of an airplane factory floor. That job led to progressively better jobs via the burgeoning San Diego defense industry build-up for World War II, though he complained that the cost of living was too high in San Diego. He became a timekeeper for Solar Aircraft, and Alberta worked there, too.
First stop on your tour: the Solar Aircraft Co. (now Solar Turbines) factory building at the corner of Laurel Street and Pacific Highway, where a walk around the premises affords glimpses of the WWII-era offices, chapel, Quonset huts and hangars. This was originally a tuna processing plant, and then the site of Ryan Aeronautics, where Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis was built.
Now walk up the Laurel Street hill and head south on Second Avenue. Polito quotes Thompson quipping about that walk: "You can tie your shoelaces on [those hills] without stooping."
Arrive at a little Spanish duplex at 2130 Second Ave. This was the first house that the Thompsons rented after moving out of his cousin's house. Polito writes that although the Bankers Hill duplex was "a pressure-cooker" for Thompson's family, "from his front steps he could smoke cigarettes and watch tramp steamers glide out of the harbor."
To get writing done in the cramped quarters, Thompson "was forced into the bathroom, his typewriter plopped down on the toilet seat as he straddled the rim of the tub." Read Nothing More Than Murder, his breakthrough first crime novel, a dark homage to James M. Cain, written in that bathroom in Bankers Hill.
Polito summarizes some of the places Thompson liked in San Diego where you can still see stuff that he saw: "He appreciated strolls in Balboa Park, weekend outings to the Del Mar race track with Alberta and Sunday morning breakfasts at Mission Beach." An insomniac, Thompson would wander the city looking for a drink, and perhaps working out a plot or character: "He enjoyed the nightlife south of Broadway, or he rambled the Spanish Old Town." Imagine a 6-foot-5, lanky man, sleepless, intoxicated, wandering the streets of downtown San Diego at night. That was Thompson. Passersby didn't know what lurked in his brain.
By the following year, the Thompsons had found a cheaper home in Linda Vista, a dull little box of a house at 2601 Nye St. This is where they would live for the rest of the decade. Nothing More Than Murder was a well-reviewed success, but he couldn't find a publisher for his follow-up, Recoil, which would eventually find a publisher in New York a few years later.
For a while, he worked as a reporter for the liberal newspaper The San Diego Journal and briefly as a rewrite man for The Los Angeles Mirror, but his drinking got him fired from both.
Convinced that San Diego was jinxed, Thompson began spending half of his time writing in New York. By the early 1950s, he'd moved his family back east. Over the next few years, he churned out a dozen crime novels, including The Killer Inside Me, The Alcoholics (set inside a rehab institution based on his time in them in San Diego), Savage Night, A Hell of a Woman, A Swell-Looking Babe, After Dark My Sweet and many more—an unprecedented period of productivity that would fizzle, stall, recover and then come to an end in the '70s due to his ongoing struggles with alcoholism and related health problems. When he was dying, he correctly predicted and told his family that he would finally receive recognition a decade after he was gone.
Thompson's daughter Patricia characterized her time in San Diego, constantly feeling the need to protect her mother from Thompson's alcohol-fueled verbal and emotional abuse in an interview with Polito:
"That wasn't a particularly glorious time for me. I don't care if I ever go back to San Diego—I wouldn't care if I never heard the name of San Diego again."
At least we can be glad that, in spite of Thompson's failings in San Diego, his time here also gave us Nothing More Than Murder, his first great thriller, the one that began his legacy as a master at making art from failure.