Billy "The Kid" Collins: Jim Thompson's Enigmatic Savior in 'After Dark, My Sweet.'

Article excerpt

After Dark, My Sweet is not one of Jim Thompson's better-known works, and the critics have had relatively little to say about it; even Michael J. McCauley, in his biography of Thompson, allows the book a mere two pages. However, what little the critics have had to say has been extremely positive. McCauley calls it an "important Thompson psychotic narrator novel" (188), and Robert Polito has included it amongst "Thompson's boldest writing about criminals" (3). Max Allan Collins has gone further, ranking it as "the most accessible, best-crafted of Thompson's psychopath-as-narrator novels" (51). Published in 1955, After Dark, My Sweet came as the last in a remarkable string of thirteen novels written in an inspired three-year burst beginning in 1952. In any estimate, these thirteen novels (including established noir "classics" like The Killer Inside Me [1952] and Savage Night [1953]) represent the definitive Jim Thompson. Although between 1957 and 1973 he would produce another thirteen, only in Pop. 1280 (1964) would he again recapture the frenzied intensity of psychopathic schizophrenia that in different forms stamps the narratorial worlds of The Killer Inside Me or Savage Night. After Dark, My Sweet rounds off the series by striking an altogether milder and comparatively bloodless note (the novel contains no gratuitous sadism, no psychic disintegrations, and only two deaths -- apart from the climactic shooting of the narrator -- and both of these are "lawful" police killings); but it nevertheless deserves attention because of its deviations from the pattern set by the preceding novels; these deviations open up a wider and more subtle range of perspectives than Jim Thompson, hard-boiled crime novelist, is usually given credit for.

The most interesting variations are to be found in the character and predicament of the ex-boxer narrator, William "Kid" Collins. He is a very rare Thompson protagonist in the way he struggles to overcome his psychological disorder rather than be swept under by it, and appears to end the novel, as McCauley has put it, "as a true savior -- rather than a deluded savior like Lou Ford of The Killer Inside Me or Nick Corey of Pop. 1280" (189). What also makes After Dark, My Sweet an untypical Thompson novel is the fact that it moves toward the protagonist's final affirmation of moral certainty (even though Collins's realization comes only hours before his death at the hands of his beloved, Fay) as opposed to the indecipherable moral ambiguity and the sense of life's absurd meaninglessness which finally swamp Thompson protagonists like Nick Corey in Pop. 1280 and Charlie "Little" Bigger in Savage Night. After Dark, My Sweet is that rarest of all things in the Thompson oeuvrea -- novel in which, albeit momentarily, the protagonist appears to have found "a reason for his actions, his unknowable nature, his seemingly meaningless existence," as McCauley puts it. These are strong and surprisingly positive words to find applied to a crime novelist whose work is often thought of as being unremittingly nihilistic and which, according to at least two commentators, lacks any moral center whatsoever.(1)

On the surface, After Dark, My Sweet is the suspenseful tale of a kidnap plot that goes disastrously wrong, ending in the deaths of two of the three conspirators. In its deeper structure, however, the novel is also a study in doomed love and the death of innocence in an indecipherable and morally vacuous postmodern world, where nothing and nobody are what they seem. The novel is given coherence and direction by William "Kid" Collins's three main objectives -- to reintegrate himself into the "normal" world after a life spent in and out of mental asylums, to arrive at a comprehensible "reading" of that world and its inhabitants, and to search out another human being whom he can love and who can restore his sense of personal worth (all common but usually unfulfilled aspirations of the Thompson protagonist). …