The Killer Inside Me
Original paperback cover
The story is told through the eyes of its protagonist, Lou Ford, a 29-year-old deputy sheriff in a small Texas town. Ford appears to be a regular, small-town cop leading an unremarkable existence; beneath this facade, however, he is a cunning, depraved sociopath with sadistic sexual tastes. Ford's main outlet for his dark urges is the relatively benign habit of deliberately needling people with clichés and platitudes despite their obvious boredom: "If there's anything worse than a bore," says Lou, "it's a corny bore."
Despite having a steady girlfriend, childhood friend and schoolteacher Amy Stanton, Ford falls into a passionate, sadomasochistic relationship with a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland. Ford describes their affair as unlocking "the sickness" that has plagued him since adolescence, when he sexually abused a little girl, a crime for which his elder foster brother Mike took the blame to spare Lou from prison. After serving a jail term, Mike died at a construction site. Lou blamed a local construction magnate, Chester Conway, for Mike's death, suspecting he was murdered for refusing to break the law to enable Conway's schemes.
To exact revenge, Lou and Joyce blackmail the construction magnate to avoid exposing his son's affair with Joyce. However, Lou double-crosses Joyce: He ferociously batters her, and shoots the construction magnate's son, hoping to make the crimes appear to be a lovers' spat gone wrong. Elmer is killed instantly and Sheriff Bob Maples, Lou's mentor, reports that Joyce died after a short stay in a coma. Though Lou believes this means he has gotten away with the crime, county attorney Howard Hendricks becomes suspicious of Lou's version of events, as well as his alibi, and a third person is suspected to be involved. This suspicion falls on Johnnie Pappas, a young minor criminal who Lou has befriended, and to whom Lou gave some of Conway's money, which is revealed to have been marked. Lou is allowed to enter the distressed Johnnie's cell alone in order to reason with him, only to murder him and stage the scene as a suicide. Though many accept that the case is closed, more people begin to suspect Lou of being involved, including the deputy, Jeff Plummer. This also includes Amy, who presses marriage even after a sadomasochistic encounter with Lou begins to convince her that he is hiding a dark side.
A bum injured earlier by Lou attempts to blackmail him, revealing that he eavesdropped on a suspicious conversation Lou was involved in. Lou, seeing a way to tie up multiple loose ends, agrees to bribe him; he also agrees to elope with Amy, who he is planning to murder. On the night the bum returns, Lou beats Amy to death, intending to frame the bum and stage it as a home invasion murder and attempted rape. The bum is killed by Plummer after Lou chases him through town after failing to kill him, and Lou is sedated and put in a hospital. Lou is visited by Plummer and Hendricks in the hospital, both who are now convinced that he is behind all the murders, and Plummer reveals that the weakening Maples killed himself, convinced of Lou's guilt. They show him a letter that Amy had written and intended to give him during their elopement, one which subtly urges him to come clean for his crimes. Lou denies that the letter is incriminating, but Plummer and Hendricks force him into a jail cell, where he is unsuccessfully tortured with audio of Johnnie's voice and pictures of Amy.
Eventually, Lou's attorney arrives and releases him, though he admits that he cannot get Lou out of town. Lou accepts his fate and ruminates on his past, concluding that his hatred and violence, especially towards women, stemmed from a childhood incident involving his old housekeeper molesting him in order to get back at his father, with whom she was unhappily involved in a sadomasochistic relationship; this incident led to him abusing women as a substitute for her, and led to his Dementia praecox. Knowing that his fate is sealed, Lou covers the house in alcohol and candles. Eventually, Plummer and Hendricks arrive with a team of police, as well as Joyce, who is revealed to have been alive all along, albeit heavily injured and unrecognizable. Joyce assures Lou that she did not sell him out, and he affirms his affection for her before stabbing her to death. The police fire on Lou, killing him, but destroying the house in an explosion in the process.
In 1976, the novel was adapted into a film of the same title, directed by Burt Kennedy and starring Stacy Keach as Lou Ford and Tisha Sterling as Amy Stanton. A 2010 version written by John Curran, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010, and was released in theaters later that year.
In popular culture
The novel is referenced in the Dead Milkmen song "Sri Lanka Sex Hotel", on their 1988 LP, Beelzebubba. The song "The Killer Inside Me" by experimental hip-hop artist MC 900 Ft. Jesus is based on the novel.
Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who worked with Thompson on the script for the 1956 movie The Killing, praised the novel, stating that it was "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered."
Bruce Springsteen has stated that the idea for his 1995 song "My Best Was Never Good Enough" (on the album The Ghost of Tom Joad) came from this book, specifically Ford's penchant for speaking in cliches.
C. Namwali Serpell has outlined a phenomenological, postcritical reading of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952) that exposes the limitations of purely ideological interpretations of the novel.
Lou Ford later appears in Thompson's novel Wild Town (1957). The Lou Ford character in Wild Town is a mirror image of the one in Killer Inside Me. In Wild Town Lou Ford is also a sheriff, he also plays the fool, and he is also smarter and more capable than anyone else in the small town although he keeps it well hidden. He also prefers, and is usually able, to manipulate events rather than directly intervene. However, whereas Lou Ford manipulates events to further his own greed and lust in The Killer Inside Me, in Wild Town he manipulates events to bring about justice, to help people, and even to play matchmaker.
- David Geffner (November–December 2009). "Soul of a Writer". Humanities.
- "Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s". The Library of America.
- Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, by Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1997. New York: The Library of America. ISBN 1-883011-49-3
- "The Killer Inside Me". IFC Films.
- Serpell, C. Namwali (2017). "A Heap of Cliche". In Felski & Anker (ed.). A Heap of Cliche. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 154. ISBN 978-0-8223-7304-9.