I like a writer who defies real comparison with anyone else in their genre. The closest to Jim Thompson would be Dostoyevsky, I think, except Thompson is far bleaker, far more negative about human nature. He’s also a stranger and more experimental writer. This is particularly surprising, given that his work was published far from any locus of critical acclaim: he wrote for crime pulps, and for cheap paperback novel publication.
You may have seen one or two films of his work: The Grifters was a fine adaptation of one of his last really strong works (his great years run from the start of the ’50s to the mid-’60s), whereas both versions of The Getaway graft on a lame happy ending. The actual ending is the most scary and depressing piece of writing I’ve ever read, creating a caged existence of constant terror.
I think he was the first crime writer to regularly use unreliable narrators. The sheriff in the brilliant The Killer Inside Me gradually reveals himself as an extraordinary character completely at odds to his presentation and a reader’s early impression. In other books, he reflects characters’ growing madness in the writing, for example splitting the book into chapters based on the narrator’s fantasy, again utterly different from the reality we are seeing.
He’s worth reading for the pulpy thrill-power of the stories, his terrifying grasp and representation of psychopaths and other monsters, and the daring in his approach to writing. The work isn’t often easily found, and like most writers for markets where speed and schedule was valued more than excellence, the quality is uneven. Frankly, given how hard the best stuff can be to find, the chances of coming across the sloppier works is remote. I particularly recommend The Killer Inside Me and The Getaway, but almost all of them need a strong stomach.