A writer reading: Jim Thompson’s The Grifters

There’s a theory of writing craft that says you learn about writing through reading. Not everyone subscribes to this view: Will Self and Colm Toibin both recommend that you stop reading fiction if you’re trying to write it (although Self does offer the caveat that if you are not widely read you have no business writing fiction).

I sort of subscribe to the theory but err on the side of ‘practice makes perfect’ so I try to spend as much time writing as possible. The demands of holding down a full-time job and keeping up with social and family commitments means my writing time’s limited. Reading anything longer than about 2000 words is a luxury these days.

The best writing absorbs you completely and that’s the joy of reading, being transported into another world. I don’t want to lose that pleasure so mostly I try to read mindfully: pausing every now and then to step back and consider the text critically to see the writer at work behind the text. But with The Grifters Thompson socked me in the face with a killer opening:

As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.

Almost every ‘how to write’ manual will tell you to start a story in the middle of the action: this has to be one of the best and clearest examples. The opening of a story has to work hard: it has to hook us, make us interested in the characters and set the tone. Thompson achieves this with remarkable economy.  In three words we meet our protagonist and by the end of the first sentence we know he’s in the midst of a crisis. By the end of the first chapter we’ve got insight into his day to day life and the setting and tone is established. We’re in LA in the recent past. Roy’s a successful con-artist who’s wary of the cops. The beating’s a result of being caught by a mark, something that doesn’t ordinarily happen to him, because he’s good at what he does. But then, in the closing sentence of the chapter, we learn that Roy’s dying, and may only have three days to live. Just like that, Thompson raises the stakes for Dillon: the plot is life-and-death. What an opening!

And after that, how could I not be intrigued to see what else he did?

For the uninitiated, all stories follow a three-act structure. At school they call it beginning, middle and end. There are a number of other ways of describing it but I like James Scott Bell’s terminology: a disturbance and two doorways.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear Thompson’s opened with the disturbance: the thing that sets the story in motion, with no preamble whatsoever. Getting caught is unusual, it disturbs the basic set up of Roy living his life in LA. The fact he’s so badly hurt he almost dies leads us to the first doorway: after years of keeping his mother at arm’s length, he is forced to submit himself to her care.

In Your Writing Coach Jurgen Wolff suggests using a fairytale story spine to help you make sure you’ve got all the key plot points covered. The fairytale is a very simple story structure: in the table below I’ve mapped the key plot points from The Grifters against his structure.

Once upon a time… There was a grifter called Roy Dillon running a short con game in LA
Every day… He ran small scams, holding down a square-joe sales job and a simple    residence in a cheap hotel as cover, and keeping women at arms-length.  It’s going real well: in 5 years he’ll have enough dough to retire.
But one day…. 

[Inciting incident/Disturbance]

He’s caught out playing twenties & gets whacked in the gut with a baseball bat and nearly dies from internal bleeding
Because of that… His mother Lilly comes back into his life. He’s kept her at arms length too: by her own lights she wasn’t a bad mother, her own childhood was far more cruel (she was married off at 13) but she was abusive and mean. In LA for the races, handling playback money for the Baltimore mob, she looked up her only child & found him on death’s door.
Because of that… 

[Turning point/Doorway 1]

Lilly does the right thing and takes care of Roy. Lilly meets Moira Langtry, Roy’s sometime squeeze. Lilly immediately recognises her as one of her kind and does everything she can to get rid of her, including hiring Carol, a cute-as-a-button nurse, to turn Roy’s head. He moves into Lilly’s apartment while he recuperates. 

Lilly also makes a mistake at the races because she’s distracted by Roy and her mob boss seeks revenge. She’s lucky: he doesn’t kill her, just burns her hand with a cigar.

Furthermore…. When Roy recovers enough to sour things with Carol and declares his intention to get back to work, Lilly begs him to give up the con & go straight but he refuses and walks out. But getting back into his life isn’t as easy as he anticipates. Even his straight-joe job has changed: the new efficiency expert offers him a job as sales manager. He makes and excuse & flees 

Out of sorts, he tried to make amends with Carol but she’s having none of it. So he arranges to hook up with Moira, who’s acting strange. But they go away to La Jolla a few days later. On the way there, he can’t resist rolling for drinks with a group of men on the train and Moira catches him at it. He’s disturbed at having his cover blown.

Things get worse: Moira blows him off for the morning & he gets caught with a punchboard in a bar. They let him go but his card is marked. Back at the hotel, Moira’s missing: gone to the races. He’s now deeply suspicious of her.

The highest point of conflict  ..starts when…. 

[Turning point/Doorway 2]


He confronts her and she ‘fesses up: she’s a grifter and she’s looking for a partner for a long-con. He’s not sure so she gives him an ultimatum and he walks away, leaving her seething with rage. 

He decides to accept the sales manager job and get out. But the next day he’s woken with the news Lilly has been killed in a motel in Tucson. He flies out there, figuring out on the way that Moira’s to blame. But when he sees the body there’s no scar from the cigar burn. He realises it’s Moira who’s dead: where’s Lilly? He gets back to LA just in time to stop her stealing his life-savings from his hotel.

He tells her he can’t let her leave with the money. He’s going straight & so should she. They fight and she smashes a glass into his neck, opening up his jugular. She weeps for him, but that soon passes & she walks out with the money, leaving ‘Moira Langtry’ to take the blame.

Of course, the novel doesn’t follow this structure at all. Thompson cleverly weaves back-story and subplots with such skill that the structure is hidden from the reader, but this exercise serves to highlight what he’s done. Lilly and Moira are the key secondary characters in the novel: it’s essentially a twisted love triangle. They are cut from the same cloth: they even look alike (a point critical to the plot). Choosing either one of them is to choose the grifting life and to stay on a path of cruelty, betrayal and violence. At one point Lilly says to Roy, “It’s a grifter’s job to take the fools” – there is no honour amongst thieves, she’s acknowledging: being a grifter means looking out for number one. They are the closest he has to ‘loved ones’, yet they are also the cause of focus of much of the conflict in the story, too.

Carol, the nurse hired to help him convalesce, and Kaggs, the efficiency expert at the straight job he uses as cover, provide a counterpoint. Both of them offer him an alternative to the grifting life: they are straight folk, honourable folk. What makes this novel such a fine example of the genre is the fact that Roy decide to take the alternative: he ends his relationship with Moira and decides to take the sales job. But, in tragic irony, this decision is what ultimately leads to his death. Moira hunts down Lilly and Lilly kills her, then returns to LA to steal Roy’s savings to replace the money she has to abandon to hide the killing.

The description and dialogue also deserves special mention: the books and manuals consistently advise using simple, straightforward language (avoiding adjectives and obscure words) and Thompson’s a master at creating vivid descriptions from plain language. Here’s how we meet Moira:

So he had let his eyes drift shut, and when he opened them, a very little later seemingly, she was entering the room. Sweeping into it on her tiny, spike-heeled shoes; a billowing but compact bundle of woman with glossily black hair, and direct darkly-burning eyes.

She paused just inside the threshold for a moment, self-assured but suppliant. Posing like one of those arrogantly inviting mannequins. Then she reached behind her, feeling for and finding the doorkey. And turning it with a soft click.

Roy forgot to wonder about her age.

She was old enough, was Moira Langtry.

She was young enough.

We have some facts there: black hair, compact, intense eyes. But we know so much more: she’s bewitching. She’s in control. And we can feel the sexual tension between them. Marvellous.

There’s so much more I could say, but don’t take my word for it. Get thee to a bookshop/library and marvel at the craft all on your own.

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