Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Jim Thompson had the uncanny ability like few others to pump out dark, mystifying and surreal crime thrillers capable of defying anyone’s expectations. His stories could never be categorized as ordinary, and this goes double for one of his slightly lesser-known works, Savage Night.
In it, we follow a five-foot-tall womanizing hitman tasked with killing a man scheduled to testify in court by posing as a tenant at his residence. However, the target’s beautiful wife and attractive young housemaid complicate the matters to no end, turning a routine job into something akin to a nightmare.
Table of contents
Jim Thompson Delves into a Killer’s Lunacy
The act of taking a life has, in large part, been trivialized by various forms of media, namely movies and video games, to the point where death doesn’t seem to have an impact lest it affects us directly. We now need to stop, think, and remind ourselves of the true implications of someone’s demise, and how psychologically-difficult it can be to actually commit murder… even for people whose job it is to kill. In his novel Savage Night, Jim Thompson takes us on a rather surreal adventure exemplifying the immense mental strain which comes with being a real-life reaper.
The novel begins by introducing us to Jake Winroy, a down-on-his-luck gambler who lost all of his fortune when the state decided to investigate his horse-betting ring earnings. What’s more, he is set to be a top witness in a major organized crime trial coming up soon, but in the shadows sits an obscure mafioso, known only as The Man, and he has a plan to ensure Jack never sees the day of the trial. The plan consists of hiring Charlie “Little” Bigger, a five-foot-tall hit-man to take care of the situation, and so begins the small man’s big misadventure.
In the blink of an eye, what seemed like the easiest job in the world has turned into a nebulous expanse of unknown, and seemingly surreal happenings begin coloring Charlie’s perception of the world. With all predictability out the window, our five-foot-tall womanizing hitman has found himself in a rabbit hole with no way out but to go on through.
Merging of the Genres in Savage Night
When the novel first begins, it seems to read like a typical crime fiction, presenting us with Jake’s believable problem and the mafia’s all-too-familiar solution to them. While Charlie does appear as an abnormality in his stature and relatively inexplicable womanizing effects, things slowly progress and unravel as you might expect them to.
However, this is where Thompson‘s mastery begins to come into play as we are slowly introduced to increasingly unsettling surreal images, depictions and events. It’s a bit akin to a descent into a total madness, one which ostensibly seeps into every corner of the page.
As we read on further and further through the story, the environments, the people, their actions and reactions begin straying from crime fiction and pulling closer to the realms of horror. There were actually a few rather heavy moments which caught me off-guard, as desensitized to this sort of thing I would like to believe I am. In more ways than one, it almost feels as if we are caught in a nightmare while reading Savage Night, one which feels imperative to end by reaching the finale, where by the way the lunacy meter shoots straight off the charts.
Now, in my opinion to combine genres is a heftier undertaking than it appears, since most of the time such an effort yields a work sub-par in every category rather than something new and unique. As far as I could tell, Thompson might have very well done it in the best way humanly possible, which is to slowly transition from one to the other while easing the reader into it.
As a result, it never felt to me as if there were clashes in atmosphere or inconsistencies in where the story was headed… on the contrary, it made the twists more surprising and difficult to anticipate, probably one of the primary keys in writing a successful thriller.
A Real Original Noir Trip
Now, while the novel does pertain to the genres of crime and horror, above those it remains in a class Thompson‘s works have always been a part of: Noir. While the conventions of the genre have certainly evolved over the years and even given birth to new lines of thought, I found Savage Night retained the core elements of its ancestors. To begin with, we have a pretty strong anti-hero in Charlie, who is at the same time endearing in his worldviews and struggles, but also despicable for the line of work he has chosen.
If anything bad does happen to him, we can always take a moment to remind ourselves he did indeed deserve it. There is the dangerous and beautiful femme fatale in Fay, and of course everyone has a scheme in mind to get rid of someone else. The characters, both primary and secondary, are all very clearly-described for us in strong and vivid tones, not leaving all too much room for hidden subtleties, which I found welcome considering how attention-catching and distracting some of the novel’s other aspects are.
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The story itself, despite feeling very much like a vague dream by the end of it, was actually quite easy to follow for me as we are always clearly shown what the next step in the plot is. We know what Charlie’s goals are, and what obstacles he is facing at any given time to completing them. Even when things take a turn for the insane depths of the human mind, we are still given threads to hold on to in order to navigate the chaos.
The Final Verdict
While this may sound negative, I would venture to say Savage Night by Jim Thompson is not the type of Noir fiction I could recommend to just anyone, especially not as an introduction to the genre. I feel newcomers seeking the classic experience would end up leaving confused, for ultimately this is a book too weird to be firmly classified in one specific genre.
Now, on the other hand, if you enjoy weirdness and madness, then I wholeheartedly recommend you give this book a shot, and this goes double for anyone who enjoys the Noir genre. It has the classic elements one would expect and mixes them in with an original, captivating and dream-like story which, in my opinion, ends up being unforgettable once you’ve digested it. While this may not be the best introduction to Jim Thompson, I think it’s safe to say it is one of his best works.
(September 27, 1906 – April 7, 1977)
Jim Thompson was an American screenwriter and author of primarily hard-boiled crime fiction novels, having written twenty-six original paperback publications over the course of his career. His more notable works include The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet, and The Killer Inside Me. He also had the distinction of being nominated for the National Book Award, in addition to which three Hollywood adaptations of his novels earned four Academy Award nominations.