CIS: The Grifters revisited

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Classics in September — Most people probably associate The Grifters with the 1990 film directed by Stephen Frears and starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening. But the script, penned by veteran crime writer Donald E Westlake, was adapted from a story by Jim Thompson, one of the most influential writers of the golden age of noir that stretched from the late 1940s to the 1950s.

Thompson was an expert at depicting an amoral world dripping with cynicism and desperation. He also wrote fierce, clean prose that told stories better and in half the words of many writers who followed him. The Grifters is a case in point. Clocking in at just 129 pages, this 1963 story may be a minnow length-wise but it’s one of the best pieces of fiction ever written about the world of the con artist.

The story focuses on Roy Dillon, a successful ‘short con artist’, a grifter, and his relationship to his mother Lily and his attractive girlfriend, Moira. When a routine attempt to cheat a shop assistant out of $20 goes wrong, Roy receives a blow to the stomach with a wooden club. As he makes his way back to his apartment, the pain gets worse. He receives a surprise visit from Lily who, discovering his condition, has him rushed to hospital. Not that Roy feels any gratitude towards her for saving his life. Indeed, he wants nothing to do with her. It’s not surprising. The daughter of a backwoods, white trash family, Lily gave birth to Roy at 14. After the death of her railway worker husband she farmed Roy out for much of his childhood to a series relatives while she partied. The experience was not conducive to a health relationship between mother and son.

Moira, meanwhile, is jealous of Lily’s new role in Roy’s life. Moira has picked Roy as her ticket out of her dead end life of hustling and, when times are particularly tough, selling her body. She’s not going to let Lily chisel in on her potential score. Roy makes it his business to read people, their strengths and weaknesses. He knows his luck won’t last forever. He’s thinking about getting out of the life, going straight, but with Lily and Moira around these plans don’t have a chance in hell. Things come to a head when Lily’s employer, a fearsome Baltimore gangster by the name of Bob Justus, discovers she’s been stealing from him. She needs to disappear quickly and for that she needs cash. The money she knows Roy has from his years on the grift.

Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Benning as Lily, Roy and Moira in the 1990 film.

The Grifters is a terrific book about the state of mind of grifting, something Thompson in the course of his hard scrabble life, had more than a little first hand experience in. For example, while on a weekend away with Moira, Roy bumps into a group of sailors on the train they are traveling on. Thompson writes: “All his thinking was concentrated on them, the time of their fleecing; in keeping them constantly diverted and disarmed. And in the high intensity of that concentration, in fueling its white-hot flames; he had nothing of them left for after thoughts. They enjoyed their drinks; his were tasteless. Occasionally, one of them went to the toilet; he could not. Now and then, they looked out the window, remarking on the beauty of the passing scenery… But while Roy chimed in with appropriate comments, he did not look where they looked nor see what they saw.”

The constant struggle to get ahead, the urge to go legit versus the joy of a fast buck, paranoia and sexually dysfunctional relationships, the choices people make when their backs are against the wall, are themes familiar to all Thompson’s books.

Yet while the book is told for the most part from Roy’s point of view, it’s Lily who dominates the story. She’s a brutal, manipulative predator accustomed to getting what she wants, either with her brains, her body or in the case of the doctor who comes to attend her dying son, through a straight out threat of death. The scene when Bobo first confronts her with his suspicions she’s been stealing from him is particularly brutal and memorable.

Like many of the many of classic pulp and noir authors, Thompson’s books are fairly easy to get. His work, including The Grifters, has also recently been published in ebook format through Mulholland Books.

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