The Grifters by Jim Thompson

Every now and again I find myself in need of a noir fix, preferably the vintage variety – something like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity or, more recently, Simenon’s The Widow (both of which I would highly recommend). I never seem to tire of these stories and their insights into the darker side of human nature. With this in mind, I turned to another leading proponent of this genre, the American writer Jim Thompson and his 1963 novel, The Grifters.

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The story revolves around Roy Dillon, a ‘short-con’ grifter (or con artist) living in Los Angeles. (At the time, the typical upper limit for a short con was $1,000, while anything above this threshold was considered a ‘big con’.) A fairly unassuming guy at first sight, Roy is the kind of man who makes friends easily. He’s young, smart, self-sufficient and wily, a seasoned professional with an air of respectability about him. Having learnt the grifting trade some years back, Roy now operates in Los Angeles, the one place where it’s possible to work an extended stint without becoming too conspicuous. (There are two key principles of life as a successful grifter: 1. stay anonymous while you remain in circulation and 2. keep on the move.) Officially, Roy’s a salesman and a good one at that; but the job doesn’t pay very well, so he supplements his income through grifting, an activity that has netted him somewhere in the region of $50,000 which he keeps hidden away in cash.

As the novel opens, we find Roy stumbling out of a confectioner’s store after being hit in the stomach with a sawn-off ball bat. Roy has just tried to work the ‘twenties’, one of the three standard tricks of the short-con grift, a ruse involving a twenty-dollar bill which nets the grifter nearly $20 in cash if he can pull it off successfully. All well and good, only this time the clerk (the shopkeeper’s son) picks up on the scam, whacking Roy in the guts in the process.

Roy is in a bad way, so he heads for the Grosvenor-Carlton hotel, his home in LA. Luckily – or maybe that should be “unluckily” – for Roy, his mother, Lilly, turns up out of the blue three days after the accident. When she realises that her son might be dying, Lilly gets Roy to a hospital where he can receive the care he needs. Roy isn’t on the best of terms with Lilly, the woman who gave birth to him at just shy of fourteen, the mother who treated him very poorly as a child. At the time, Lilly’s attitude resembled that of a selfish older sister towards a bothersome younger brother. She showed very little affection towards Roy until he reached his teens when all at once her attitude softened to reveal ‘a suppressed hunger in her eyes’, a sign of sexual attraction which didn’t go unnoticed by the boy at the time. Now after an absence of seven years, Lilly is back in Roy’s life, and things are about to get stormy.

Lilly is a tough cookie, one of the hardest women you’re ever likely to encounter in noir fiction. She operates out of Baltimore, working the ‘playback’ for the mob’s bookmaker, placing sizeable cash bets on likely runners and longshots to lower the odds on these horses. When she first settled in Baltimore, Lilly found work as B-girl in a bar; in other words, her role was to act as a companion to male customers, encouraging them to buy drinks wherever possible. Then, in time, Lilly’s employers recognised her true assets, and so she got drawn into other more lucrative activities.

Lilly Dillon wasn’t putting out for anyone; not, at least, for a few bucks or drinks. Her nominal heartlessness often disgruntled the customers, but it drew the favourable attention of her employers. After all, the world was full of bimbos, tramps who could be had for a grin or a gin. But a smart kid, a doll who not only had looks and class, but was also smart – well, that kind of kid you could use.

They used her, in increasingly responsible capacities. As a managing hostess, as a recruiter for a chain of establishments, as a spotter of sticky-fingered and bungling employees; as a courier, liaison officer, finger-woman; as a collector and disburser. And so on up the ladder…or should one say down it? The money poured in, but little of the shower settled on her son. (pg. 7)

When Lilly comes back into his life, Roy realises that she reminds him of someone. It turns out to be his girlfriend, Moira, an older woman and former grifter who relies on her dwindling capital, good looks and ageing body to sustain a living. It’s not that the two women are similar in appearance; it’s more a case of them being cut from the same cloth. Both possess a certain attitude, a kind of steeliness if you like.

You couldn’t say that they actually looked like each other; they were both brunettes and about the same size, but there was absolutely no facial resemblance. It was more a type similarity than a personal one. They were both members of the same flock; women who knew just what it took to preserve and enhance their natural attractiveness. Women who were either endowed with what it took, or spared no effort in getting it. (pg. 39)

Lilly takes an instant dislike to Moira, putting the frost on her with a view to breaking up the relationship with her son. Moira’s none too keen on Lilly either. In this scene, she’s just had a run-in with Lilly (Mrs Dillon) at the hospital, a passage that will give you a good feel for Thompson’s style and tone.

So today she had risen early, knocking herself out to be a knockout. Thinking that by arriving at the hospital at an off-hour, she could see Roy alone for a change and tease his appetite for what he had been missing. It was highly necessary, she felt. Particularly with his mother working against her, and throwing that cute little nurse at him.

And today, after all the trouble she’d gone to, his damned snotty mother was there. It was almost as though Mrs Dillon had read her mind, intuitively suspecting her visit to the hospital and busting her goddamned pants to be there at the same time.

Smoldering, Moira reached the parking lot. The pimply-faced attendant hastened to open the door of her car, and as she climbed into it, she rewarded him with a look at her legs. (pg. 74)

The Grifters is a classic story of greed, resentment and possession. It’s also a portrait of life as a long-term grifter, the lone wolf constantly on the lookout for the next opportunity, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law.

As the novel moves towards its conclusion, a number of things come together to force a dramatic turn of events. Roy faces a choice: should he plump for safety and security by accepting his firm’s offer of a role as Sales Manager, a job he knows he could manage quite easily (and would most likely enjoy), or will the lure of the grift prove too much for him to give up? Moira’s assets are fading fast – both her looks and her money. With her sights set on the big-con game, she sees Roy as the perfect partner, especially once she discovers the true extent of his grifting skills and activities (a side he has tried to keep under wraps as far as possible). And then there’s Lilly to contend with…but I should probably leave it there for fear of revealing too much about the ending.

The characterisation is very strong (with the possible exception of Roy’s nurse, Carol, who plays a role midway through the novel but seems lightly sketched in comparison to the three main leads). Where Thompson really excels though is in the dialogue and the scenes centred on grifting, both of which feel rich in detail and rooted in authenticity.

I’ll finish with a final quote on another of the standard tricks of the short-con grifter’s trade, the ‘tat’, a ruse involving the spin of a die. The tat, with its rapidly doubling bets, is a sure-fire way of fleecing a sucker. If the grifter can catch a group of guys with this game, then he’s all sorted for the week ahead. There’s a bit more to it than this (particularly in the set-up), but it would be unfair of me to reveal everything at this point. Hopefully, it will whet your appetite for reading the book.

The tat must always be played on a very restricted surface, a bar or a booth table. Thus, you could not actually roll the die, although, of course, you appeared to. You shook your hand vigorously, holding the cube on a high point, never shaking it at all, and then you spun it out, letting it skid and topple but never turn. If the marks became suspicious, you shot out of a cup, or, more likely, a glass, since you were in a bar room. But again you did not really shake the die. You held it, as before, clicking it vigorously against the glass in a simulated rattle, and then you spun it out as before.

It took practice, sure. Everything did. (pg. 35)

For another perspective on The Grifters (published by Orion), click here for Guy’s review.

31 thoughts on “The Grifters by Jim Thompson

  1. MarinaSofia

    There is something about that cool American swagger style of telling a story which doesn’t work when someone non-American does it… I haven’t read this, but it sounds compelling, thank you for drawing my attention to it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s something inherently American about the mood and attitude here. Oddly enough, I’ve never read Thompson before – this was my first. I think you’d like it, Marina.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s the thing! I remember seeing the film when it came out, and even though it feels like a long time ago those images of Angelica Huston are pretty hard to forget. I’m going to watch it again fairly soon just to see how it compares to the novel.

      Reply
  2. Max Cairnduff

    I like Thompson, but oddly this isn’t my favourite, mostly due to the ending which didn’t quite work for me (since many here won’t have read it I won’t say more than that). Great characterisation and noir feel to there though.

    Thompson is one of the greats and this is strong stuff by any way you count that. His The Killer Inside Me is also excellent, and also very dark…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can understand that. Without wishing to give too much away, there’s something a bit hectic about the ending, a sudden acceleration of pace that just feels a little at odds with the rest of the novel. I liked it well enough to read another by Thompson, but I preferred Simenon’s The Widow (it’s just a tighter story, I think). The stuff on the short cons was excellent though – it all felt very true to life.

      Did you review this one, Max? I’ll head over to yours to take a look. I do recall your Killer Inside Me post, but I’m wondering whether I’ve missed your review of this one. If so, I’ll add a link.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, yes. I suspect we’re on the same page there. I thought he could have done a bit more with Carol’s character, she just felt a bit ‘thin’ compared to the other three.

          Reply
  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I agree, the noir feeling really comes through in this review. I can only imagine what Moira must have thought when she got to the hospital and realized that the mother was there, too…

    Reply
  4. crimeworm

    Fab review, Jacqui. I do know I have a copy hiding somewhere in the house, so I may find it and give it a read. I know what Marina means too. It’s also a film I always wanted to see but have never got round to – John Cusack was in it as Roy, I think, but I’m trying to remember who played Moira – Lara Flynn Boyle, was it? I don’t see many films nowadays.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Linda. Oh, do dig it out and have a read as I think you’d like it. Yes, John Cusack played Roy in the film, and it was Annette Bening as Moira, although Lara Flynn Boyle would have been a great choice too – she can play that type of role to perfection. My main memories of the film are all connected with Anjelica Huston as Lilly – she kind of steals the whole thing really.

      Reply
  5. Scott W.

    Oddly enough, though I haven’t read Thompson, I don’t think he’s quite my cup of (black, very black) tea. I suspect this is because I didn’t like the film much and also found the Thompson impersonation in Ariel Winter’s Twenty Year Death trilogy to be the weakest and least interesting as compared to the outstanding Simenon impersonation and the very good Chandler. I know, that’s not quite fair to judge an author by his sincerest flatterer, but there it is…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, he’s dark alright, that’s for sure! That’s interesting about the Ariel Winter impersonations. (I still need to read that trilogy – I had it on a wishlist at one point, but it must have dropped off somewhere along the way.) While I liked The Grifters, I wouldn’t say it was one of my favourite noir novels. Simenon’s The Widow (from earlier this year) was more to my tastes. I’ll read another Thompson though as it’s hard to judge an author on the strength of just one book.

      Reply
  6. Seamus Duggan

    I went through a period of being obsessed with Thompson. The Killer Inside Me is definitely worth a read, as is the great biography Savage Art by Robert Polito. I also liked King Blood which is a dark, bloody western noir. Actually I find it hard to remember particular titles as they kind of blend together from a distance. The best movie adaptation is Maggie Greenwald’s The Kill Off, which is grimy and dark and stylish.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great – cheers, Seamus. The Killer Inside Me is starting to sound like essential reading. I hadn’t heard of The Kill-Off before you mentioned it, so that’s one for me to look up. Even the title sounds menacing…it made me think of Ben Wheatley’s film Kill List.

      Reply
  7. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    I have heard so much about this book and Jim Thompson in general. I saw the film and liked it. I really want to read this author.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Thompson as it’s been a good 25 years since the film came out. I’m going to watch it again fairly soon (now that I’ve posted my thoughts on the novel).

      Reply
  8. Caroline

    He’s been on my radar since Guy started reviewing him.
    I like the sound of this one but there were others that tempted me even more and which are still sitting on my piles. I’ll have to look into the movies too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I hadn’t realised that Guy had reviewed so many of them until I went looking for other reviews of this one. Mind you, I can see how they might become rather addictive. Even though I preferred the Simenon I read earlier this year, there was more than enough here to keep me interested (and to leave me keen to try another at some stage). I’d love to hear your thoughts on this writer, Caroline.

      Reply
  9. madamebibilophile

    I’ve never read any Thompson, but the style of the quotes you pulled out is great – I’ll have to give him a try! I saw the film years ago and it has stayed with me – time for a re-watch after I’ve read the novel, I think :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really liked the style. There’s a strong noir feel to it, especially in the scenes with the women. I didn’t love it quite as much as the James M Cain novels I’ve read (Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice), but it’s still a good novel. I’m about to watch the film again, just to see how it compares to the book! :)

      Reply
  10. bookbii

    Sounds like a great read, very atmospheric (as is your review). Anything that mentions grifters reminds me of the movie The Sting, have you seen it? It always sounds so glamorous, but is probably a very risky way of life. Nice to read about and watch, but possibly not a great way to actually live.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Gosh, The Sting! Yes, I have seen it, but quite a long time ago. I love Redford and Newman – as a double act, they’re pretty hard to beat. Thompson’s novel also reminded me of another (more recent) noir film: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s very, very dark indeed. Definitely not a good way to live.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        Oh yes, Redford and Newman did make a great team. I remember watching Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid as a teenager and being transfixed by their chemistry. Been re-watching movies like this recently, and they really stand the test of time. Haven’t seen Hard Eight but will look that one up, thanks.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I’ve been going back to quite a few these old movies as well – they’re often more satisfying than many of the new films being made these days, especially the big blockbuster franchises. Hard Eight is worth a look, but it’s pretty brutal stuff…

          Reply
  11. Emma

    Great review. I haven’t read this one but I’ve read The Killer Inside Me and Pop 1280. I recommend both of them. The Killer Inside Me is probably a must-read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. That’s good to know. Maybe I’ll try The Killer Inside Me next as it’s come up a few times. I might have a wait a little while until the film fades from my memory as I watched it again fairly recently.

      Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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