RARA-AVIS: Jim Thompson: Where'd He Go?

From: Kevin Burton Smith (kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 19 Feb 2010

  • Next message: Ron Clinton: "RE: RARA-AVIS: Jim Thompson: Where'd He Go?"

    Dave wrote:

    > I did read somewhere that when his (Thompson's) books were originally being published that millions of copies were being bought--so at one point he had to have been very popular (even if he never made any money with his books)

    That figure can't be right, can it? Or else Thompson was even worse at business than we ever suspected. If they were selling millions (millions!) of copies of his books back in the forties and fifties, why was he pretty much forgotten until the mid-to-late eighties -- and why did he end up with such lousy, mostly paperback-only publishers for much of his career?

    With sales figures like that, even if he was difficult to work with (alcoholics are so much fun), most publishers would have rushed to sign him, wouldn't they? I mean, millions of copies? That's a staggering number -- that's best-seller status.

    And that begs an obvious question: where did those millions of books go? Why weren't the pre-1980s used bookstores filled with them, like those of contemporaries Halliday and Spillane and Prather?

    I know this is anecdotal, but after coming across a battered copy of THE KILLER INSIDE ME back in college in the late seventies, I kept an eye out for others by him on my regular used bookstore prowls over the next several years, and sightings were few and far between.

    WWII paper rationing was over. And they couldn't have all made their way to landfills or been hoarded by clairvoyant collectors. Millions of books sold don't suddenly vanish. Maybe those sales figures were cumulative over the years. But even that seems unlikely, given his subsequent obscurity.

    I realize pulp writers weave in and out of popularity, but the almost total disappearance of Thompson the crime writer from public memory (at least in this country) for twenty or thirty years suggests even then he was more likely a cult writer, more revered by a devoted following than read by the large mainstream audience that would have been necessary to generate millions of sales.

    After all, who sells millions these days? Dan Brown? Danielle Steel? John Grisham? James Patterson? I can't picture any of them disappearing from public consciousness for twenty or thirty years. Even if we wanted them to.

    Hmmm... has anyone written (or can recommend) a really good biography on Thompson, something on the level of Tom Nolan's amazing Ross Macdonald book a few years ago? Thompson's life, and his subsequent literary reevaluation and rediscovery, would probably make for a very good read.

    And if Thompson's literary rep can be so dramatically resurrected, who's next?

    Kevin Burton Smith Editor/Founder The Thrilling Detective Web Site
    "Wasting your time on the web since 1998."

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