Book Review - The Criminal by Jim Thompson

Sure looks innocent/guilty to me!
A fourteen year old girl is found raped murdered. 

The prime suspect is a fourteen year old boy held in custody. 

The potentially salacious story is buried a few pages into the local paper. Without much evidence to hold him, the boy appears to be on the verge of being let go. That is until the ominous newspaper publisher (who only appears on the other end of phone calls) wonders if the story can be drummed up a bit to be a front page item. After all, he's in the newspaper business. And the dominoes begin to fall....

Despite being originally published over sixty years ago, it’s tough to write about The Criminal by Jim Thompson without discussing how surprisingly relevant it is today. A quick little novella about the violent rape and murder of a fourteen year old girl and the teenage boy arrested for the crime. Told in alternating first-person narrative from everyone including the boy's mother and father, the newspaper editor, a beat reporter, attorney both of the prosecution and defense, in edition to others superficially involved in the case, the novella draws parallels to Netflix' Making a Murderer.

The obviously parallel is between the fictional main suspect, Robert Talbert, and Brenden Dassey, the real life teen who was convicted of assisting his uncle, Steven Avery, in the murder of Teresa Halbach. Both were teenagers who found themselves alone, and in way over their heads in a situation in which they were easily manipulated by the agenda of whomever was questioning them at any given moment. Fans of the show will find it eerie how similar the scenes of Dassey’s confession are with the one in the novella where Talbert is coerced by the district attorney into admitting guilt. Later, when Talbert is interviewed by his own attorney, of course it’s an entirely different series of events. Where's the truth? Who knows? And as far as Jim Thompson is concerned, who cares?  

There is a moment in the story where Thompson could have just told us outright if the kid did it or not in a chapter narrated by Talbert, but Thompson ends the chapter right at the vital moment before the murder either occurred at the hands (around victim's throat) of Talbert or it didn’t. Instead, Thompson pulls away and doesn’t give the audience the perceived satisfaction of knowing if the boy is guilty or not. What that tells me is that for Thompson it doesn’t matter who the killer is. Therein lay the horror of the story. What matters is not the who of it all, it's the how. In particular, the how the killer is decided upon, by the press, by the D.A., and by the public.    

This story isn't a whodunit. The Criminal is a story of agenda and manipulation and not a search for the cold, honest truth. The cast of characters in The Criminal just want to get their way, and will use whatever version of the truth they can to expedite that process. Even Robert's parents aren't above it. One of the first anecdotes we hear from Allen Talbert (the boy's father) is how he framed his co-workers to cover up for the fact he used the bathroom too much at work. And it worked! He even got a raise out it... or at least the promise of a raise, which is just as good, right? But hey, a win's a win as Thompson plants the seeds of his theme right away.  

This is a gem of a novella. The alternating first-person chapters gives a sense chaos surrounding the plot which play in the story's favor. There's only one chapter towards the end where the language doesn't particularly age well, but it's there for a reason and serves a purpose. 

Fans of Thompson will find in this a restrained story without the macabre or portrayal of madness (descent into or otherwise firm) that typically accompanies at Thompson tale. Don't be fooled though, the madness is still there. It's just quietly bubbling at the surface for everyone to see, so no one pays it much mind.

The Criminal by Jim Thompson - 4.5 out of 5 Influenced Confessions From A Kid Who Just Wants To Go Home. 


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