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Savage Night by Jim Thompson
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Savage Night (1953)

by Jim Thompson

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Jim Thompson has a well-deserved reputation as one of the greatest of all the pulp writers. He wrote thirty novels in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, including The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, Hell of A Woman, The Getaway, and The Grifters. The Getaway was a huge box office hit in 1972 starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. Its 1994 remake was also a hit, starring Baldwin and Basinger. The Grifters also became a big hit in the movies in 1990, produced by Scorsese and starring Cusack, Huston, and Bening. Donald Westlake wrote the screenplay. But watching a movie based on one of Thompson’s books is not the same as reading the original material. Although hundreds of writers have tried to ape his style, there was only one Jim Thompson. His tales are sordid. They are filled with psychopaths and grifters. His heroes are anti-heroes. They are not just criminals, but often mean, violent, sadistic men. Also, his books are filled with a sardonic sense of humor that often leaves the reader laughing out loud.

Savage Night is a tale about a pint-sized contract killer who has been brought out of Arizona retirement to do one last job for “the Man” and Thompson never gives “the Man” a name. He is just a shadowy figure, representing mobster chieftains. It begins with “Little Biggers” arriving in New York after “three days of babes and booze while [he] waited to see the Man.” He then takes the railroad out to some poh-dunk dead- end town called Peardale where Jake Hinson is living – Jake Winroy who is about to testify at a trial that will bring down the gambling interests in the city. He explains that the farther he got into Peardale, the less he liked it. “The whole place had a kind of decayed, dying-on- the-vine appearance.” It was ninety-five miles from the city and nothing there but a small teacher’s college. “There was something sad about it, something that reminded [him] of bald-headed men who comb their side hair across the top.”

Because he looked young for his age, Biggers is to enroll at the college and take a room in the Winroy house and wait for his instructions to off Winroy. He uses the name Carl Bigelow since it is close enough to his real name- Charles Bigger- that he can remember it. Bigger is an odd hero for a book- he is short. He wears elevator shoes. He has false teeth and is barely healthy enough to get around without losing his lunch.

When he gets to the Winroy house, he notes the brown grass and the paint-peeled fence, but then his eyes came up and looked across the street and saw Fay, Jake’s wife, who had a reputation as quite a “stepper.” “She had one of those husky well-bred voices.” “One look at that frame of hers, and you knew the kind of breeding she’d had: straight out of Beautyrest by box-springs. One look at her eyes, and you knew she could call you more dirty words than you’d find in a mile of privies.” But Biggers knows what she is. And, he ain’t falling for her. As he pulls her by the hair up out of the tub, “She stood there on the bathmat, fighting with everything she had to fight with - - offering it all to me. And she saw it wasn’t enough. She knew it before I knew it myself.” And, after that scene, he’d broken the ice but good and she knew who he was now if she hadn’t had a damned good idea before and she knew why he was in Peardale and it was okay with her. “She was stacked. She was pretty. She was just about everything you could want in a woman – as long as you were on top or you looked like you might be on top.”

In the hands of a lesser author, this book would be slow as Biggers bides his time until he does the hit, but Thompson fills that time up with an odd assortment of characters, including a one-legged girl who Biggers takes advantage of, the calculating femme fatale of Fay, the old peculiar bakery manager who must be in on the deal to act so queer (Mr. Kendall), and the sheriff who won’t let up on Biggers. The time is filled with exploiting cripples, plotting to kill his landlord, putting out matches on a woman’s chest, sticking knives in his associates’ necks, and other beastly acts. All the while, Biggers puts on an act as if he were the prince of innocence himself.

One of the oddest episodes is his dalliance with Ruthie, she of he one- legged fame. When she arrived, one good look is all he got, but what he saw interested him. “Maybe it wouldn’t interest you, but it did me.” She had on “an old muckledung-colored coat – the way it was screaming Sears-Roebuck they should have paid her to wear it.” He observes that “the swinging around on that crutch hadn’t done her rear end any harm. If you saw it by itself, you might have thought it belonged to a Shetland pony.”

The ending is Thompson-esque in its strangeness and uniqueness as blood and mental illness take over. This is prototypical nihilism and is found throughout the book such as a scene where Biggers is angry and elbows through a crowd getting on a subway car, noting he had elbowed a woman holding a baby good and wondering if the baby would be better off under the wheels of the train than going through the crap of life.

This is vintage Thompson and it is noir like nothing else you have ever read. Enjoy. ( )
  DaveWilde | Sep 22, 2017 |
Although hundreds of writers have tried to ape his style, there was only one Jim Thompson. His tales are sordid. They are filled with psychopaths and grifters. His heroes are anti-heroes. They are not just criminals, but often mean, violent, sadistic men. Also, his books are filled with a sardonic sense of humor that often leaves the reader laughing out loud.

Savage Night is a tale about a pint-sized contract killer who has been brought out of Arizona retirement to do one last job for "the Man" and Thompson never gives "the Man" a name. He is just a shadowy figure, representing mobster chieftains. It begins with "Little Biggers" arriving in New York after "three days of babes and booze while [he] waited to see the Man." He then takes the railroad out to some poh-dunk dead- end town called Peardale where Jake Hinson is living - Jake Winroy who is about to testify at a trial that will bring down the gambling interests in the city. He explains that the farther he got into Peardale, the less he liked it. "The whole place had a kind of decayed, dying-on- the-vine appearance." It was ninety-five miles from the city and nothing there but a small teacher's college. "There was something sad about it, something that reminded [him] of bald-headed men who comb their side hair across the top."

Because he looked young for his age, Biggers is to enroll at the college and take a room in the Winroy house and wait for his instructions to off Winroy. He uses the name Carl Bigelow since it is close enough to his real name- Charles Bigger- that he can remember it. Bigger is an odd hero for a book- he is short. He wears elevator shoes. He has false teeth and is barely healthy enough to get around without losing his lunch.

When he gets to the Winroy house, he notes the brown grass and the paint-peeled fence, but then his eyes came up and looked across the street and saw Fay, Jake's wife, who had a reputation as quite a "stepper." "She had one of those husky well-bred voices." "One look at that frame of hers, and you knew the kind of breeding she'd had: straight out of Beautyrest by box-springs. One look at her eyes, and you knew she could call you more dirty words than you'd find in a mile of privies."

But Biggers knows what she is. And, he ain't falling for her. As he pulls her by the hair up out of the tub, "She stood there on the bathmat, fighting with everything she had to fight with - - offering it all to me. And she saw it wasn't enough. She knew it before I knew it myself." And, after that scene, he'd broken the ice but good and she knew who he was now if she hadn't had a damned good idea before and she knew why he was in Peardale and it was okay with her. "She was stacked. She was pretty. She was just about everything you could want in a woman - as long as you were on top or you looked like you might be on top."

In the hands of a lesser author, this book would be slow as Biggers bides his time until he does the hit, but Thompson fills that time up with an odd assortment of characters, including a one-legged girl who Biggers takes advantage of, the calculating femme fatale of Fay, the old peculiar bakery manager who must be in on the deal to act so queer (Mr. Kendall), and the sheriff who won't let up on Biggers. The time is filled with exploiting cripples, plotting to kill his landlord, putting out matches on a woman's chest, sticking knives in his associates' necks, and other beastly acts. All the while, on an act as if he were the prince of innocence himself.

One of the oddest episodes is his dalliance with Ruthie, legged fame. When she arrived, one good look is all he he saw interested him. "Maybe it wouldn't interest you, She had on "an old muckledung-colored coat - the way screaming Sears-Roebuck they should have paid her to
observes that "the swinging around on that crutch hadn't done her rear end any harm. If you saw it by itself, you might have thought it belonged to a Shetland pony."

The ending is Thompson-esque in its strangeness and uniqueness as blood and mental illness take over. This is prototypical nihilism and is found throughout the book such as a scene where Biggers is angry and elbows through a crowd getting on a subway car, noting he had elbowed a woman holding a baby good and wondering if the baby would be better off under the wheels of the train than going through the crap of life.

This is vintage Thompson and it is noir like nothing else you have ever read. Enjoy. ( )
  DaveWilde | Sep 22, 2017 |
Carl Bigelow arrives in the small college town of Peardale and finds there's a problem with the room he has rented in the Winroy house. First, the Winroy's have a bad reputation, secondly, Mrs. Winroy's too good-looking and friendly, and third, Mr. Winroy is a paranoid drunk who sicks the sheriff on Carl right away because he thinks his young, five foot tall lodger is a hitman come to kill him. Add in another lodger who sees promise in Carl as a baker and scholar, and the deformed kitchen help who falls in love and you have a seething mess of longing and disappointment.

As with most of Thompson's books, the ending to this is surprising, violent and bizarre. ( )
  mstrust | Dec 27, 2011 |
I read this having heard that it was one of his top two (along with Killer Inside Me) but I didn't like it nearly as much as his other stuff. I think this is largely because the main character SOUNDS like he should be fascinating, but Thompson didn't take the time to let us peer into his madness. The kinky elements provide some insight (I'll not spoil them here) but for a ruthless hired killer, the protag largely comes across as just a functioning drunk. Additionally, the build-up to the payoff is far too long and lacks tension--after all, most of the development is spent on the protag's developing a relationship with some old pedant. At least the novel is short.

Nota bene: my complaints about the plotting and characterization aside, Thompson's pelucid style, inventive ideas, insight, etc., make anything he writes far better than most stuff out there. ( )
  trivigo | Aug 2, 2010 |
It's like this... whenever I read one of these 'hard-boiled' crime type novels I can't help but read it in a James Cagney's voice... you see. This I believe was my first Jim Thompson novel and I really did enjoy it. Carl Bigelow aka Charlie 'Little' Bigger arrives in a small town to take care of business for 'The Man' and runs into a little problem with the dames. Having bad teeth, damaged eyes, wearing platform shoes and suffering from consumption doesn't seem to stop him from getting the dames either.

Strange characters (including a hot dame with a baby foot), thrilling plot complete with twists, and an ending to die for... what more could you ask for?

'Sure there's a hell...' I could hear him saying it now, now, as I lay here in bed with her breath in my face, and her body squashed against me... 'It is the drab desert where the sun sheds neither warmth nor light and Habit force-feeds senile Desire. It is the place where mortal Want dwells with immortal Necessity, and the night becomes hideous with the groans of one and the ecstatic shrieks of the other. Yes, there is a hell, my boy, and you do not have to dig for it...' ( )
2 vote Banoo | Oct 11, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679733108, Paperback)

Is Carl Bigelow a fresh-faced college kid looking for a room, or is he a poised hit man tracking down his victim? And if Carl is really two people, what about everyone around him? Savage Night is Thompson at his best, with plot reversals and nightmarish shifts of identity.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:56 -0400)

Carl's real interest in moving to Peardale is that Jake Winroy lives there and he's the chief witness in a corruption trail.

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