“Desirable Trash” (by Philip Lowery)

Next week, when EQMM’s November issue goes on sale, Philip Lowery will make his debut as a published fiction writer. A civil engineer by day, he has long been a devoted fan of crime fiction, as is evident from this post. The talented new author was born and raised in the U.K., but moved to the U.S. more than twenty years ago, and is now an American citizen living outside of Philadelphia with his daughter. His surprising first story, entitled “Ninth Caller,” is something you won’t want to miss. —Janet Hutchings

I made a mistake this summer. Almost three thousand miles from home, I passed up the opportunity to purchase an old mass-market paperback, a TV tie-in novel, one of those short, rushed hack jobs that a publisher wants on the streets as fast as possible to cash in on the popularity of a hit series.

Seriously? One of those books?

I know what you mean.

As soon as I picked it from the shelf (the bottom shelf, as it happened) I began to have complicated thoughts. Why would I want a piece of junk like that? Surely it would be all adverbs and plodding dialogue, with plot twists paced to align with commercial breaks instead of dramatic arcs. Did I honestly see myself reading it? Did I have any expectation of even minimal enjoyment from the experience?

Or, these complicated thoughts went on, was this just a trophy for my own bookshelf at home, a collectible intended to remain unread? (And if so, when did I become that person?) Because this also happened to be a book by a favorite author, a book I hadn’t thought could possibly still exist in 2015. Even as I stood between the towering stacks, turning the near-orange pages with hesitant fingers, I didn’t really believe it. It was like finding out they had a unicorn available for adoption over at the animal shelter. Why wouldn’t I snap it up?

So went my odd reaction to finding this tattered treasure.

But you want to know who, and what, right?

The writer was Jim Thompson, the book a paperback original from 1967: Ironside. Yes, Ironside, the TV show, featuring the wheelchair-bound San Francisco detective. Apparently Thompson wrote these things for a few TV series—after a stint writing actual episodes for various other shows—as an income supplement when the novels weren’t bringing in much (or selling at all). No one could fault a writer for making a living any way he had to, of course. But as an admirer of his writing, my inclination was to discount any such piecework; after all, it couldn’t be one hundred percent pure Thompson. In fact, I had conveniently forgotten these books had ever existed, let alone kept a mental note to look for them in used bookstores.

My complicated reaction to stumbling across Ironside by Jim Thompson (and how strange title and author looked together on the cover) had its roots in my regard for the man as a novelist and my sympathy for the man as an unappreciated talent. It’s been well documented that Thompson had a varied and sometimes difficult life, endured a lack of critical acknowledgment during that life, and in suitably noir fashion was doomed to miss out on a resurrection of his works and reputation by dying before the rest of the world caught up to him—a trajectory full of the bleak irony that characterizes the novels themselves.

I am currently “working my way through” Jim Thompson, and so far have read about ten of his books. (For the sake of veracity, I checked; I’ve read nine.) Of those few, three have upended my understanding of what’s possible within the genre of noir and suspense fiction, namely The Killer Inside Me (of course), Savage Night, and Pop. 1280, the latter being an over-the-top masterpiece, in my opinion. Jim Thompson wrote many more books (more than thirty, says Wikipedia) so I have a long way to go. And I know, too, that the quality of his writing was variable (I believe that’s the charitable term), a result of deadline pressures and financial pressures. The man couldn’t catch a break, it seems, despite periods of relative success born of sheer hard work and productivity. I’ve already read a couple of the lesser novels, along with some that were just fine, and if nothing else there’s some compelling writing going on in all of them.

But I find myself a little reluctant to go all-in, to plumb the depths, in part because I’m afraid of what might happen to the great works in comparison. Will they seem less good? I worry. Will I see borrowings and repetitions, failures of execution that will throw a cloud over what I have considered up to now (in thrall to my squeaky fandom) to be breathtakingly courageous moves, bordering on if not embodying genius? Such are the worries of a diehard-fan-in-the-making, afraid to see the humanity and frailty, wanting to revere where reverence might be—who am I kidding? We’re human. Most definitely is—misplaced.

It doesn’t help that the commentary of others, coming on top of my own perplexed reactions to certain of his books, supports the presumption that all might not be well in Thompson country. Even the greatest of his admirers would have to admit that some of Jim Thompson’s writing is repellent; there’s no other word for it. Where cruelty and perversion might seem groundbreaking, bold, and revelatory in the safe hands of a writer at his peak, the same twists can come across as depraved, foul, and crass when deployed cynically. (It turns out, for me at least, that this is a pretty fine line.)

This is what I fear for the books yet unread. I will read them, I have no doubt, but I am pacing myself. I want to savor them—the good ones—but I know I might also need time to cleanse the palate, to forgive Jim his sins when I read a clunker or two.

Which brings me to these novelizations, or whatever they are; TV tie-ins, for God’s sake. Is this in any way a good idea? Do I need to own physical evidence that a great writer was reduced to hackwork? Isn’t it enough that I know his life was hard, that much of his work was written under financial and often physical duress? Do I really need to read a book I assume the guy didn’t want to write in the first place? I feel bad enough for him already . . .

Here’s the thing. Here’s why I know in forehead-slapping retrospect that I made a big blunder that summer day in the bookstore. I read the first paragraph of Ironside, standing there in the swirl of secondhand dust motes between the pillars of literature. And the very first sentence was one hundred percent pure Thompson:

“It was the kind of a place where if you didn’t spit on the floor at home you could go down there and do it.”

Despite recognizing it as such, even thinking, Look at that, he didn’t slum, even for a piece of crap like this, I re-shelved the book and went on with my day, not recognizing the early pangs of regret even as I moved downstack to the Donald Westlake section.

What a moron.

Jim Thompson wrote from an unusual vantage point—down there—looking up at the world, seeing it for what it is from an odd and disturbingly revealing angle. He saw the dark, venal, and ugly side of life in ultrahigh definition, with a clarity that was at times almost comically horrifying. That’s how he wrote; that’s the only way he could write, evidently, regardless of the project at hand, and that’s what makes him a treasure, hard as he might be to love. My misgivings about a “lesser” work—so prissy and fretful, so cautious of me—are pale and ridiculous in that fierce glare. How I wish I’d bought that book that day.

Of course, it has since dawned on me—after reminding myself that I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s but no longer actually live there—to check online. I was surprised to find listings for three copies of the book. Not a bonanza, by any means, but somewhat less rare than the unicorn I thought I’d cornered then allowed to escape. (Incidentally, I owe the Internet, in the form of Book Dirt Blog by Kelly Robinson, a further nod for providing the exact wording of the quote reproduced above; my own version of it, mangled by imperfect memory, contained two separate “something-something”s.)

Powell’s, in Portland, Oregon (the labyrinthine bookstore where this sorry tale unfolded) has an excellent website, and is one of the original online booksellers, as far as I know. Powells.com’s “warehouse” is basically the store itself, the place is so vast. I saw employees wandering the corridors of shelves holding baskets and tickets, filling orders at a strolling pace, the product most certainly touched by human hands. (What’s next, selling candy by the ounce, poured from big glass jars into little paper bags fastened with a twisty-tie?) I went to Powells.com in the hopes that the actual copy of Ironside by Jim Thompson, the one I’d held in my hands, might by some miracle be available still. According to the website, it was. (And it might be my good fortune that the online catalogue listed the book as Ironside by Jim Thompon, whoever he is.)

I gratefully placed my order, and now look forward to my second chance to read a deeply flawed potboiler flecked with pulp gold. And the next time I come across a unicorn made from cheap paper and smelling like grandma’s house, I will lasso that beast, wrestle it down to the register, and pay cash on the barrel, no questions asked.

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4 Responses to “Desirable Trash” (by Philip Lowery)

  1. Ah, nonbuyer’s remorse. I know it well. I read the Ironside book when it first came out, my first encounter with Thompson. I remember two things about it: that it was partly from the villain’s point of view (definitely not typical for Ironside) and… the shower scene. (NBC would have burned a script that had that scene in it.)

  2. Love this post—from such a number of perspectives: favorite authors, guilty pleasures, various levels of judgement (self and otherwise), and then the book collecting/questing aspect of it all. Really looking forward to your story in the new EQMM too!

  3. Philip Lowery says:

    That’s very kind of you, Art. My best wishes to you for the launch of “On The Road with Del and Louise” next week!

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