Throwback Thursday: The Grifters

Hey, sweetcheeks.  Gimme a light, will ya?  Put up those pretty little feet and settle in for the most wretched group of scoundrels mid-century America has to offer...

Most of the time, when I get a book off of my to-read list/shelf, I don't really remember why I put it on there in the first place. The Grifters must have gone on when I was on my Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett kick. Thompson's novel makes those other noirs look like fluff. Not that Chandler and Hammett's noirs didn't have their fair share of human nastiness in them--they did. I always found them to be first, and foremost, about atmosphere and style. Thompson's book teems with the nasty, grasping, animalistic part of human nature. 

There's really not much in the plot department, either (although at least it's not entirely forgotten or totally unsolvable, as can happen in Chandler's books). Roy is a con man, a grifter, running small cons to make money. Because of the nature of the con, he never settles down, always trying to stay ahead of the authorities or those who might recognize him from the con. The novel opens with a con gone wrong, with Roy's stomach on the receiving end of a jagged baseball bat. 

Enter the mistress, Moira. When Roy returns to his hotel lodgings, where he's got a veneer of respectability as a matchbox salesmen (seriously, did people really do this? Sell matches door-to-door?), he summons his mistress, the dark-haired, super-sexy Moira. Turns out she used to run with a con man, until she found out, thanks to the ever-helpful revelatory drunken jabbering scenes, that he was pretty much a psychopathic lunatic who believed all children should be killed upon being born. 

After some, ahem, visiting time, Moira leaves and Roy starts to feel really sick. Enter, his mom, Lilly. Boy, what a piece of work. In many respects.

Thompson weaves in the backstory of these characters very well. Lilly had Roy at the age of fourteen, and after unsuccessfully fobbing him off on her relatives for a few years, raised him while only providing him just enough care that the authorities wouldn't get suspicious. She told everyone they were brother and sister. Lilly could have cared less about Roy's problems, telling him when he hurt his arm, "It's only one arm," etc. 

She sells herself, for herself, spending the money only on herself. However, as soon as he begins to mature into a man, she feels a bit differently, as if he was the husband or lover she never had. While Thompson never goes directly into the incest camp, there certainly are some pretty twisted overtones to their relationship. If you were Roy, what would you do?

If you answered "run away," you get a gold star! It doesn't seem possible, though, to live on the up-and-up, and Roy falls into grifting as a means to not only get by, but build up a stash. 

The baseball bat incident is really the catalyst for the whole story, since when Lilly comes in to see Roy, she realizes instantly that something's wrong and has him rushed to the hospital. There they come into contact with a nurse who survived the concentration camps, and whose innocent demeanor hides the horrors that she's endured. Everyone circles each other, warily, scavengers sizing up game for the kill, until two--or maybe three--who knows?--end up dead. 

This book wasn't without its faults. Try as I could, the reason why Roy becomes so thoroughly repulsed by Carol, the nurse, after he learns of her history wasn't exactly clear to me as laid out in the book. Is it good old-fashioned anti-Semitism? And the threat to Lilly's life from her pimp/handler was also a bit vague to me (although her punishment wasn't!). 

Thompson doesn't hold back or sanitize the dirty things his characters do. The book is raw, cruel, and twisted, just like its characters. Not something I'd choose for everyday reading, or the stereotypical beach read, but very good nonetheless.


  1. Trivia: my favorite author was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for bringing The Grifters to the big screen. I like Thompson because there are no heroes. There are sometimes survivors, but that's about it. Pop. 1,280 is a terrific read, as is The Killer Inside Me.

    1. I have yet to see the film adaptation, but it's On My List. :) I loved The Killer Inside Me as well; might do that one as a TT some other week. My library system doesn't really have Thompson's oeuvre, so I end up ILLing it or buying it.


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