Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson, book of a lifetime: Hilarious and horrific

A small time sheriff in the 1920s decides that it's time to clean up his town - and slowly reveals his darker and sinister side

Charlie Higson
Thursday 05 November 2015 14:25 GMT

I was a snobbish teenager, going out of my way to shun the mainstream. I listened to jazz and classical music instead of pop. I watched obscure, arty, subtitled films rather than the latest Hollywood output. I read long books by Beckett and Kafka. But when I went to university everything changed. A friend of mine turned me on to crime fiction and since then I've never looked back. Once I'd tasted the delights of genre fiction – the instant hit, the smash to the head, the flow, the muscle, the vernacular – literary fiction lost all its appeal for me. The thought of picking apart the turgid, empty, "cleverly written" sentences of "proper" fiction fills me with horror.

Having ploughed through the likes of Elmore Leonard, George V Higgins and Charles Willeford, I dug further back, which is how I came across Jim Thompson. I'd never read anything like the books he turned out in the '50s and '60s. His ability to get inside twisted minds was uncanny.

I love crime fiction, but for me that means fiction about criminals. I'm not nearly as interested in detectives and policeman, although in Thompson's two best books the heroes are both lawmen and murderers. The Killer Inside Me, with its sadistic, damaged, police chief, is one of the few books I've read that really shocked me, but my favourite is Pop. 1280. It's about a small time sheriff in the 1920s who decides that it's time to clean up his town (population 1,280). He starts out as a harmless fool – lazy, greedy, feckless, deluded – and slowly reveals himself as something much darker and more sinister.

The book manages to switch between hilarious and horrific in a startling manner. Reading it was a revelation. This was the type of fiction I wanted to write, wrong-footing the reader on every page, drawing you into an appalling story, making you laugh one minute and recoil in horror the next. Thompson churned out pulp to order, and his work is uneven, but always extraordinary. A Hell of a Woman breaks down into competing narratives told by the two halves of a fractured mind. The Getaway has an unforgettable ending that completely pulls the rug out from under you. Savage Night descends into a surreal, hallucinatory nightmare. These books are as experimental and cleverly constructed as any literary fiction, with the advantage of being very readable. I realised that under the disguise of pulp fiction you could produce work with real depth and meaning. So, for me, whether I'm writing comedy, horror, fantasy, sci-fi or action adventure, I hope I can make people think about the world and their place in it differently.

Charlie Higson's 'The End', the final book in 'The Enemy' series, is out now (Penguin)

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