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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Author James Myers "Jim" Thompson, born in Anadarko, Oklahoma, on September 27, 1906, wrote many memorable crime novels, but his greatest popularity came after his death. Thompson's father, James, was sheriff for Caddo County at the time of his son's birth. Due to mismanagement of funds the elder Thompson departed to Mexico in 1907, and his wife and children left to live on her family's farm in Burwell, Nebraska. In 1910 the family reunited in Oklahoma City. After his father made and lost a fortune in Oklahoma and Texas oil, the son found work as a bellhop at Fort Worth's Hotel Texas. Working overnight and going to high school during the day, he learned first hand the underside of life in Fort Worth.

Health broken by long hours and alcohol, Thompson moved briefly back to Nebraska, then back to Fort Worth, and in summer 1926 to West Texas to work in the oil fields. Hoboeing much of this time, he probably never finished high school but formed many of his early political beliefs (joining the IWW) and garnered knowledge that found its way into his writing. In1929 he entered the University of Nebraska as an adult special student. In Lincoln he met and married Alberta Hesse. The difficulties of the Great Depression caused him to drop out in 1931. In 1933, after failing in various ventures, he returned to Oklahoma City, and he eked out a living selling articles to trade journals and working as a relief laborer. The want of money sent him back to Fort Worth and a job at the Worth Hotel. At this time he began writing for crime magazines such as True Detective.

In 1935 Thompson and his extended family moved back to Oklahoma City. There he befriended William Cunningham, director of the Oklahoma Writers' Project, who soon hired him. During this period he joined the Communist Party, as did many young intellectuals of the time. After Cunningham left, Thompson led the team to publish some of its research, beginning in 1938 with a Guide to Tulsa and a Calendar of Annual Oklahoma Events. Controversy always surrounded the Writers' Project, even before Thompson's reign, and now the conservative faction, led by Zoe Tilghman, added pressure. U.S. Sen. Josh Lee pushed the group to publish a history of labor in Oklahoma, over Thompson's protests that it would mire the project in more controversy. When federal art projects came under state control on September 1, 1939, Oklahoma Gov. Leon Phillips refused to sponsor the writers section unless Thompson and all others affiliated with the Communist Party were removed.

Jobless again, Thompson again began submitting articles to pulp magazines. In 1940 the Rockefeller Foundation General Education Board awarded him a fellowship to produce a book on labor and unions in the Southwest. When his stipend ended, Thompson took his wife and three children to San Diego, California. There he peddled his writing to the film industry and supplemented his income with a stockroom job at Ryan Aeronautical. He used San Diego as a setting for his first novel, Now and On Earth (1942). On a trip to New York he called on many of his leftist Oklahoma friends, and one, Woody Guthrie, introduced him to Modern Age Books, which published his first manuscript.

His next offering did not materialize until 1946. Heed the Thunder, set in Nebraska, again drew from his past and portrayed a small midwestern town in a stark light, similar to many short stories by his friend George Milburn. In 1949 Harper and Brothers released Nothing More than Murder, which reflected his work for pulp magazines. In 1952 Lion Books published The Killer Inside Me, lauded by critics and perhaps his most renowned book.

This began a successful Lion partnership and led to his most productive years. From 1952 to 1954 Lion produced ten Thompson novels including The Alcoholics (1953), A Swell-Looking Babe (1954), and A Hell of a Woman (1954). Two works, Roughneck (1953) and Bad Boy (1954), like Now and On Earth, were autobiographical. His reputation established, he followed with After Dark, My Sweet (Popular Library, 1955), The Getaway (Signet, 1959), The Grifters (Regency, 1963), Pop. 1280 (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1964), and six other crime stories. The best of these were first-person narratives told through the thoughts of a psychopath who played a "good ol' boy" persona, keeping his maniac tendencies locked inside until he unleashed them on his victims. The French esteemed Thompson, translating at least nine of his novels and developing two movies from his work.

Thompson still flirted with Hollywood. In 1956 he received a dialogue credit for Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and joint screenplay credit for Paths of Glory (1957). In the 1960s he wrote television episodes of Dr. Kildare, Man Without a Gun, and Convoy. In the twilight of his career Thompson crafted "treatment" novels of television programs and movies such as Ironside (1967), The Undefeated (1969), and Nothing But a Man (1970) for Popular Library. He also had an acting part in Farewell, My Lovely (1975), starring Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe. Beaten down by illness and poverty, Jim Thompson died on April 7, 1977, in California. Two of his books, The Getaway (1972) and The Killer Inside Me (1976), became movies during his lifetime.

After his death his popularity rebounded, and many of his other books migrated to the screen, including The Kill-Off (1989), After Dark, My Sweet (1990), and The Grifters (1990 and nominated for four Academy Awards). In the 1980s much of his work was reprinted, and with his continued popularity, two biographies appeared in the 1990s.

Larry O'Dell


Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 9 March 2000.

Michael McCauley, Jim Thompson: Sleep with the Devil (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1991).

Robert Polito, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Thompson, James Myers,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=TH013.

Published January 15, 2010

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