Tonawanda News

February 4, 2013

BOOK NOOK: Art imitates hard-boiled life in 'A Hell of a Woman'

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Crime novelist Jim Thompson, author of well over 20 works, didn’t just write about the hard-boiled life. He lived it.

Born in 1906 to a sheriff who would find himself incriminated on embezzlement charges, Thompson was never one to spend too much time on the moral high ground. Uninterested in traditional education, the author focused more of his time on finding ways to make a quick buck.

For example, as a teenager still in high school, Thompson would work the night shift as a bellboy at the Hotel Texas. Catering to guest’s needs during prohibition, Thompson found himself making more than $300 a week by supplying his guests with alcohol, marijuana and heroin. The official job itself only paid $15 a month.

Despite his disinterest in formal education, Thompson was a bright child, having published a number of short works while still in his teens. He attempted to go to college at the University of Nebraska in 1929 as part of a program for gifted students, but had dropped out by 1931. 

By the age of 19, Thompson was already a heavy drinker and had suffered a nervous breakdown. Such an extreme lifestyle played out into his novels and was often a heavy influence — such as in his 1954 hit, “A Hell of a Woman.”

From 1952 through 1954, Jim Thompson cranked out entire novels within a month, publishing up to five books a year. While such a pace seems like a recipe for sloppy work, “A Hell of a Woman,” along with most of his other novels released at the time, were some of his most successful.

“A Hell of a Woman” includes all the traditional noir aspects fans of the genre know and love: first person narration, get-rich-quick schemes, violence, drinking, love affairs and more. Fans of films such as “Double Indemnity” and the “Maltese Falcon” will feel right at home. 

At times, such a heavy reliance on the hard-boiled aspects of the main character, Dolly, can feel a bit over the top. The way he speaks to love interest Mona, calling her “baby child” and “sweet thing” can come across tacky, but little lapses can be forgiven when “A Hell of a Woman” is looked at from a bigger picture.

Wrapped around the story of Dolly and Mona attempting to rip off an elderly, rude and insensitive woman of $100,000, is a narrative bold enough to take risks. While simple noir stories were selling well in 1954, Thompson chose to push things further, tapping into his life experience for help.

About half-way through the novel, Thompson takes a big literary risk for a pulp work and has main character Dolly suffer a nervous breakdown — just like Thompson had experienced himself in the past. From this point on, narration shifts from broken down, violent, realistic Dolly, to kind, respectable Dolly, imagining a fantasy world where things occurred only the way he had wished they would have.

It’s hard not to see Thompson’s life mirrored in the novel. Dolly, along with a number of side characters, are heavy drinkers, finishing off entire bottles of liquor to themselves in single nights. Thompson would pass away at age 70 from a number of strokes brought on from his alcoholism. Bitter fights break out between Dolly and his wife, not unlike the rocky relationship Jim had himself.

Crime fiction and noir screamed for such a lifestyle from its characters in the 1950s, almost as a getaway for the strictly traditional lifestyle the majority of Americans were living at the time.

Shooting for the cookie-cutter, new-build house with a wife and 2.5 children was the American dream of the time, and pulp novels such as “A Hell of a Woman” fulfilled the more primal cravings of man. It’s no wonder many of Thompson’s works, now heavily praised, were originally sold alongside the pornography section of stores. 

“A Hell of a Woman” is no complicated read. Written to please an audience searching for an imaginary lifestyle Thompson knew too much about from first-hand experience, “A Hell of a Woman” can be thought of as more of a getaway in novel form — full of page-turning excitement, chapter-ending cliffhangers and a number of enjoyable twists. It’s okay to like Dolly as a character — just try not to imitate him too much in real life. It cost Thompson a lot.

• WHAT: "A Hell of a Woman" • BY: Jim Thompson • GRADE: B

Dean Goranites publishes weekly video book reviews at, and can be reached through Twitter at unleash_this.