Ryan David Jahn and Jim Thompson

The Killer inside Me

Having spent his childhood shuttling between his dad’s flat in Austin, Texas, and his mum’s rentals in LA, screenwriter and novelist Ryan David Jahn ditched school at 16 for a job in a record shop and then headed off to join the army. Demobbed and glad to put that ‘ludicrous experience’ behind him, he used the hours spent reading James M Cain, Carver, Chandler and Stephen King in public libraries to good effect in Acts of Violence, his blood-drenched, contemporary noir debut. Based on a real-life crime – the killing of Kitty Genovese outside her New York apartment in 1964 – it explores the ‘bystander theory’ from multiple perspectives. His latest book, Low Life, is just as powerful – a tightly plotted, psychologically astute existential investigation of identity, murder and memory. Here he wonders what it would be like to be Jim Thompson. EITHNE FARRY

If it included having to live his life, no one thinking clearly would want to be Jim Thompson. The years of obscurity, the alcoholism that resulted in frequent hospitalisations, the money trouble, the strokes, and the anonymous death with his career at its nadir and every one of his books out of print: that’s not a life anyone would choose.

But if one could just be Jim Thompson the writer, that’s a different matter. Sitting at his typewriter he was fearless. He would not hold back. Most people can’t be completely honest with their shrink; Jim Thompson put his psyche on every page for the world to see. And more: he was entertaining as hell while he did so.

I think of Savage Night, in which the protagonist/narrator Charles ‘Little’ Bigger recounts meeting a man who claimed to grow sexual organs, ‘the more interesting portions of the female anatomy’, on a farm in Vermont:

‘I fertilize them with wild goat manure,’ he said. ‘The goats are tame to begin with, but they soon go wild. The stench, you know. I feed them on the finest grade grain alcohol, and they have their own private cesspool to bathe in. But nothing does any good. You should see them at night when they stand on their heads, howling.’

I think of the end of that same novel, when the goats return, and how it makes even the end of Cain’s Double Indemnity seem positively optimistic by comparison.

I think of the mad hell Doc and Carol McCoy find themselves in at the end of The Getaway, when they finally arrive in El Rey, towards which they’ve been running for the length of the novel. It’s a madness not even Peckinpah had the courage to try to capture on film.

And I think of Lou Ford’s sickness taking over in The Killer inside Me.

The façade is torn away, and all the darkest rooms of the mind are revealed.

Whenever I feel myself holding back, whenever I feel myself being careful, I think of Jim Thompson at his most honest.

This was a man who never worried what his mother would think.

Ryan David Jahn

Low Life is published by Macmillan.