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.
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.