Femme Fatale or Femme Mort?

The Kill-Off by Jim Thompson.

Luane Devore is from wealth, though in the years since she came into her inheritance she’s squandered it. Only the house remains in which she lays in bed wasting away with an unnamed illness. To fill her days she sleeps and tells lies. Using her phone she gossips around town about everyone she knows, embellishing, exaggerating, and outright fibbing. And the stories she tells aren’t innocent but the kind that ruin jobs, relationships, and lives. needless to say, there are plenty of folks around who would be happy to see her die–whether from that pesky illness or means more effective.

Manduwoc is a seacoast town, a few hours train-ride from New York City. It’s the kind of place that fills up during the summer and empties the rest of the year. Luane’s husband, Ralph, is an odd jobber who does what he can about town making some money and living frugally. Most people think he’s managed to squirrel away a handsome sum eover the years, with the way he works so hard and never splurges. Some even think the money’s stashed somewhere about his and Luane’s house so as a thorough seawrch might turn it up . . . if Luane weren’t a constant presence in her upstairs bedroom.

And Monduwac has hit hard times. The place is slow of tourists and even the wealthy locals are struggling. A score like what Ralph’s surely got could change lives and make things happen. When times get desperate, the temptation builds and it seems everyone has a motive to kill the old invalid, whether because her lies ruined them or to find the money Ralph hid away. The only question is will someone actually do it and, when they do, who was it.

This is my first Jim Thompson novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Apparently–while he wrote prolifically–he was nicknamed the “Dimestore Dostoevsky.” His story is complicated and in a way epic. He writes from the point of view of each character in the first person, switching heads each chapter. he manages this brilliantly and develops individual back stories and motivations that would move each to murder. His changes in syntax and language use to distinguish each character’s voice flow easily and don’t seem forced. The sheer number of different persons he inhabits to distinction in this relatively short novel make the fact all the more impressive.

With each chapter–he never repeats a POV–he weaves together a tapestry of lives intertwined to the point of near incest. Lawyers, doctors, contractors, and their children or dependents, all seem unfortunately connected to Luane Devore. Each one is well developed and considered. After the initial shock of the first chapter transition I found myself looking forward to each new character. none of the people here are pure. Even Ralph has affairs. And one has to wonder if anyone in Monduwac might be redeemed.

The prose is solid and confident. Thompson is obviously at ease with his words. he seems able to adopt different voices even more seamlessly than Elmore Leonard would later accomplish. The style is tense , the reader knows Luane is going to die from the cover blurb so the suspense is built by the construction of so many motives. it’s not a single red herring so much as a net full of the crimson fish. And as the final revelation of the culprit comes, Thompson reveals that even the pure in heart can be a suspect.

Four and a half stars. if this is par for Thompson’s work, I look forward to reading more. i definitely recommend The Kill-Off to anyone interested in crime fiction.

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