|Publisher||Gold Medal Books|
Set in the fictional town of Pottsville, Texas during the early 1900s, the novel follows Nick Corey, a seemingly dim-witted sheriff whose pleasant exterior hides a scheming, psychopathic personality. He has a cynical view of the town he lives in and sees his duty as keeping up a thin veneer of respectability that allows everyone else to act as illicitly.
Critical reception has been largely positive. NPR's Stephen Marche described it as Thompson's "true masterpiece, a preposterously upsetting, ridiculously hilarious layer cake of nastiness, a romp through a world of nearly infinite deceit."
Pop. 1280 is the first-person narrative of Nick Corey, the listless sheriff of Potts County, the "47th (out of 47) largest county in the state". He lives in Pottsville which has a population of "1280 souls". The story takes place about the time of the Russian Revolution, in 1917-1918.
Sheriff Nick Corey presents himself as a genial fool, simplistic, over-accommodating, and harmless to a fault, given he is Pottsville's sole lawman. In reality, he is a clever psychopath able to manipulate people by appealing to their worst instincts and to get away with multiple murders.
The novel begins with Nick visiting Ken Lacey, the sheriff of a nearby county. Nick visits Sheriff Lacey ostensibly to ask for advice as he has in the past. Nick has two pimps in charge of a whorehouse on the river at the edge of town who regularly insult and abuse him. Nick asks Lacey what to do about them and Lacey mocks and belittles Nick including literally kicking him in the behind multiple times. Lacey finally explains that he is doing all this to show Nick that when someone hurts you, you need to hurt them back twice as hard, finishing with the boast that if any pimps tried to disrespect him, he would shoot them dead on the spot. In the process of suffering the abuse of Lacey and his deputy Buck, Nick realizes that Buck harbors ill will towards Sheriff Lacey as well. He manipulates Lacey to have Buck see him off at the train station and has a discussion with Buck before heading back home.
Early that evening Nick goes to see the two pimps. As usual they berate and mock him for taking their graft and for being generally spineless. Nick plays the fool and takes their abuse waiting for a steamboat to traverse a bend in the river and blow its whistle. When it does, to the shock of the pimps, Nick pulls his gun and kills them both, relying on the noise of the whistle to cover the sound of his gun.
He dumps their bodies in the river and returns home to take a nap. He's awakened by his wife Myra to find that Sheriff Lacey has come to see him. At the prodding of his deputy Buck, Sheriff Lacey became concerned that Nick might actually kill the pimps and make him an accessory for encouraging the crime. Nick reassures Lacey that the thought never entered his mind. He gets Lacey drunk and then apologizes that even though it's too late to get a train back Nick doesn't have room to let Lacey stay the night and there are no hotels in Pottsville. He tells Lacey the only place to spend the night is the whorehouse run by the pimps. In his drunken state Lacey is eager to spend the night this way. As Nick walks him there he manipulates Lacey to brag to several people that he would never take abuse from the pimps, virtually claiming he would kill them if they tried. He further manipulates Lacey to make similar claims to the prostitutes at the house.
The next day, the county attorney Robert Lee Jefferson berates Nick for not doing his job and never making any arrests. Jefferson warns Nick that he will face a strong opponent in the coming election from Sam Gaddis. Nick replies that the people don't really want him to do his job, that they enjoy petty crimes such as gambling, public drunkenness, and prostitution and that if he started to arrest people for such crimes he would have to arrest the whole town. Jefferson is adamant that Nick needs to stop being so lazy and cowardly because Gaddis is everything that Nick is not. Nick agrees with Jefferson that Gaddis is a man of the highest moral quality regardless of all the rumors about him people are spreading. Jefferson asks and then demands to know what these rumors are but Nick refuses to tell him. In reality there are no rumors but Nick realizes that he has planted a seed that will result in them.
Nick then goes to find Tom Hauck, the husband of Rose Hauck who Nick is having an affair with. He finds Hauck drinking and fishing at the river. Nick tells Hauck that he has been having sex with his wife and as Hauck begins to sputter with rage Nick picks up Hauck's shotgun and lets him have both barrels in the stomach. As Hauck lies in agonizing pain Nick kicks him a few times and leaves him to die a painful death. Nick leaves Hauck to go see Hauck's wife Rose. He encourages Rose to have sex with him, but as much as she wants to, she has work that must be done at her farm or her husband will viciously beat her when he returns from fishing. Nick toys with her a while then finally gives her the news that he has killed her husband. She is overjoyed and they retreat to her bedroom to have passionate sex.
In addition to Rose Hauck, Nick is also having an affair with Amy Mason. He sometimes has difficulties juggling both affairs while keeping either woman as well as his wife Myra and her imbecile brother Lennie from discovering them but by quick thinking and manipulation he is always able to.
Whereas Rose is foul mouthed and hypocritical, Amy is the only person in Pottsville that is beyond Nick's manipulation because she has a strong sense of morality. As she learns that Nick is planning to frame Sheriff Lacey for the murder of the two pimps which Nick committed she threatens to tell the authorities regardless of any potential consequences for her and Nick realizes that she would actually do it. This makes Amy more appealing to Nick than Rose. He realizes that he must choose between them because Amy is too intelligent to try and deceive about his relation with Rose and she will no longer tolerate Nick seeing Rose.
Nick comes up with a way to get rid of his wife Myra, her brother, and Rose all at once. He manipulates Rose, who thinks she is taking part in a scheme to get rid of Nick's wife, to tell Myra's brother Lennie that she has seen him and Myra having passionate sex. Upon hearing this, Myra takes Lennie and heads for Rose's house. Myra breaks in on Rose and tells her that because she discovered her and Lennie's secret (what seemed like a vicious rumor turned out to be the truth) she is going to have Lennie rape her while she takes photos in order to blackmail Rose and force her to leave town. Rose gets a pistol that she purchased to protect herself from her abusive husband and kills both Myra and her brother.
Rose finally realizes she has been manipulated by Nick. When she confronts Nick he just laughs at her and suggests she get out of town as soon as possible before the bodies are discovered. Toward the end of the novel, Nick's inner dialogue becomes more and more delusional as he comes to believe he is Jesus come to Earth to dispense justice on the guilty, hypocritical people of Pottsville. The novel ends without Nick being caught for any of his crimes but with the impression that circumstances are finally catching up to him while he becomes more delusional.
The character of a sheriff who plays the fool but is in reality highly intelligent is used several times by Thompson. Sometimes, as in this novel and The Killer Inside Me, the sheriff is a psychopath. In the novels Wild Town and The Transgressors, the sheriff is heroic, a highly intelligent man who was forced by circumstances to take a job that didn't allow him to take full advantage of his abilities and who plays at being a clown to fit in to his role and to manipulate people for altruistic ends.
In his autobiography Bad Boy, Thompson wrote that this character was based on an actual deputy who pursued him when he neglected to pay a fine for being drunk and disturbing the peace. As recounted in a New York Times article, Thompson describes the encounter he had with the deputy:
Alone with him on the vast prairie, the deputy becomes a creature of menace: "Lived here all my life . . . Everyone knows me. No one knows you. And we're all alone. What do you make o' that, a smart fella like you? . . . What do you think an ol' stupid country boy might do in a case like this?"
The deputy grins, puts on a pair of gloves, smacks a fist into the palm of his other hand.
"I'll tell you something. . . . Tell you a couple of things. There ain't no way of telling what a man is by looking at him. There ain't no way of knowing what he'll do if he has the chance. You think maybe you can remember that?"
The sheriff also is quite likely based to some degree on Thompson's own father, who had many of the same characteristics: a born politician who knew just what to say to win favor with anyone and who appeared friendly on the outside but inside harbored a great deal of pent up rage and misanthropy.
Pop. 1280 is also one of Thompson's most overtly political books. Nick constantly uses jokes to point out the racism, classism, and sexism of American society, for example at the end of Nick's discussion with the county attorney who is after Nick to make more arrests when Nick promises to arrest anyone who breaks the law, "Providing o' course, that he's either colored or some poor white trash that can't pay his poll tax".
In popular culture
Pop. 1280 was referenced in the 1997 film Cop Land. The Garrison town sign reads: "Welcome To Garrison Population 1280". The director, James Mangold, is reputed to be a big fan of Jim Thompson.
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- McGrath, Charles (2010-06-03). "Filmed to a Pulp". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-04-10.
- Marche, Stephen (26 September 2012). "Bad Sheriff: Murder, Lies And Southern Fried Catfish". NPR. Retrieved 2015-05-08.
- Block, Lawrence (October 14, 1990). "CRIME/MYSTERY; A Tale of Pulp and Passion: The Jim Thompson Revival". The New York Times.
- Polito, Robert (1995). Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. Vintage Books. pp. 450–458.
- Maslin, Janet (1982-12-20). "Clean Slate (1981) 'Coup De Torchon,' Life In A French Colony". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-04-10.
- Martin, Clare (February 22, 2019). "Yorgos Lanthimos to Write, Direct Adaptation of Crime Novel Pop. 1280". Paste. Retrieved February 24, 2019.