I picked up a copy of The Grifters by Jim Thompson while I was on holiday recently. I only knew the Stephen Frears film starring Angelica Huston, Annette Bening & John Cusack and to be honest, I don’t remember much other than thinking how unlikeable the characters are. But I’m working on a thriller so I’m devouring crime stories in all media so it seemed like a good choice.
Turns out it is a great example of hard-boiled fiction, but, more, it’s a textbook example of many of the things ‘how to write’ manuals and classes recommend. There are plenty of writers who are dismissive of manuals, and I can appreciate the point of view. But for me, reading (selected) manuals helps me have a meta-understanding of structure, and a language to describe it, that helps me to understand the craft of writing. I see it as analogous to language learning: knowing that you must conjugate the future perfect tense differently from the future imperfect tense doesn’t help you chat up a hunky Frenchman (unless he’s language teacher, peut-être?) but it does help you understand what you’re getting wrong and how to get it right as you develop your skills. Being able to explain why a good novel is good is a critical element of improving your own craft, in my opinion.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that this week’s post is a reflection on just why The Grifters works so well. I hope it makes you want to read the book!