Friday, August 16, 2013

Book Review: Ironside by Jim Thompson

Remember that time the great Jim Thompson wrote a TV novelization? No? It’s okay, I didn’t know either. I came across Ironside while processing an order at the used book store, and I laughed. It’s by a guy named Jim Thompson, I thought. But certainly not the Jim Thompson? It’s a common enough name. Then I read the first line.

“It was the kind of a place where if you didn’t spit on the floor at home you could go down there and do it.”

That’s him, all right.

Not only is the whole first paragraph an obvious example of Thompson’s signature style, but the first line is recycled from a previous story, “The Tomcat That Was Treetop Tall.” You can hardly blame him for using it again: the story is not well known (it turns up in Fireworks: The Lost Writings), and it’s arguably one of his most evocative openers. 

Ironside, a TV tie-in paperback by Jim Thompson, 1967.

Thompson was only ten years away from the end of his life when he wrote Ironside, and he had already had at least one stroke. It was easy money, and it paid in advance. He would go on to do two more novelizations, adapted from the screenplays for The Undefeated and Nothing But a Man. He probably considered himself lucky to get the work with Popular Library. Editor-in-chief Jim Bryans had turned down White Mother, Black Son (later published by Lancer as Child of Rage), calling it “a little too raunchy.”

For whatever reason, Bryans contracted Thompson to create “a sort of novel” out of the new NBC crime drama Ironside, to coincide with its premiere season in 1967. Starring Raymond Burr as the gruff, wheelchair-bound Chief Robert T. Ironside, the show took place in San Francisco where the detective busts thugs with his team: straight and narrow Ed Brown; pretty, blonde, and privileged Eve Whitfield; and former boxer and ex-delinquent Mark Sanger. It was a huge hit, spanning eight seasons, and it seems like just about everyone who existed in the ‘70s guest-starred, including Jodie Foster, Harrison Ford, Ed Asner, David Cassidy, and Bruce Lee. Jessica Walter even starred in a spin-off show, as San Francisco’s first female police chief.

The theme music is what everyone remembers, even if they’ve forgotten the show. It was written by Quincy Jones, and was reportedly the first television theme song to be synthesizer based. Jones later expanded it and recorded it as a full-length song for an album in 1971. It’s still catchy by today’s standards, in a retro kind of way. Quentin Tarantino seems to agree: he used a segment of it in Kill Bill as a motif. (You can hear it every time Uma Thurman fixates on an enemy.)

In short, Ironside the show was everything that Thompson was not. It was popular. It was profitable. The only thing it had in common with the writer was crime. It’s no wonder, then, that the  entire Ironside tie-in is sort of a mishmash. While it is more accurately a tie-in than a novelization (it’s an original story not appearing on the show), Thompson is forced to use pre-existing characters and backstories. It’s known that he wrote without revising, but here it seems as if he’s writing even more quickly, patching in bits of old work, going on stream-of-consciousness tangents, then remembering the show and putting in some of that, too. The result is both great and terrible. You can see Thompson in it. It’s a big mess of a forest, but if you look around, it’s got a few lovely trees in it.

A synopsis is difficult, because the plot is rather convoluted. A killer is loose in San Francisco, and an ambulance driver is under suspicion, as he’s repeatedly the first on the scene. Simultaneously, Mark Sanger has been arrested after a white guy he punched for shouting racist slurs at him dies in the hospital. Mark’s fists are apparently considered deadly weapons by law (he was a boxer, after all), so he’s in pretty big trouble. Keep in mind, though, that Thompson once wrote: “There is only one plot -- things are not as they seem.” Neither the murders nor Mark’s troubles end up exactly as you might predict, though predicting anything is tricky with Thompson’s lack of control over the storyline. It veers so many times, you might feel carsick.

It’s fun, though maybe a little cringeworthy, to watch Thompson have to dance around expletives. Ironside’s most-used adjective is “flamin’”, and it’s a weak substitute for the type of profanity Thompson’s fans are used to. You can sense the restraint when he writes “pea soup from pineapple juice,” or anytime he uses the word “butt.” It’s almost effective in what’s probably an accidental way when he’s forced to call a woman “A wicked, wanton woman. A degenerate wastrel.” The one “w” word he’s not using is so notably absent, it’s the only one you’re really thinking of.

Though he shows restraint when it comes to language, Thompson adds something to the Ironside mix that’s not at all present on the show: sexuality. He uses it to deepen Ironside’s character, depicting him as sexually frustrated, a topic I don’t think the show ever delved into. After reacting angrily to a playful kiss from Eve, Ironside throws her out, undresses with great difficulty, and goes to bed, telling himself that his response to her had been the only fair one.

She didn’t know. No one knew. No one but Robert Ironside knew the actual dimensions of his handicap. And there was only one way another person could know. To let her -- them -- share the burden.

Eve’s character presents a problem for Thompson. He doesn’t seem to know how to portray a nice girl who’s not a victim or a sex object -- so he makes her into both.  “I like to keep you around for decoration,” the chief tells her, which is no surprise, considering the penchant her dress has for riding up when she checks the oven. It’s no surprise either that Eve gets into life-threatening trouble. In Jim Thompson’s world, it’s what she was made for. (This isn’t a judgement of any kind on Thompson’s choices, but an observation on how the show’s characters differ when guided by him.)

Mark Sanger’s layers are probed more deeply than they ever were on TV. His inner monologues contain some of the best characterization in the book:

A man may have been born with dung in his mouth, and his nose may have been rubbed in it until its stench becomes a part of him. But it don’t kill his sense of smell. And it don’t kill his taste buds, man; it really don’t. It just makes them sharper, you know? Hungrier for somethin’ nice. And when it finally comes along, when he at last tastes honey and inhales the aroma of roses, he knows what they are. He knows.

There’s no call in an Ironside book for a depraved killer as narrator, but Thompson delivers as best he can, focusing on the murderer for long stretches. It’s out of place in this particular story, but it’s brilliant -- almost a book within a book -- and it’s welcome to anyone who’s a fan. When the killer is getting his gloves on and reciting his insane lines, we know we’re in Thompsonland. He can’t help going there, just as he can’t help recycling old lines -- or even titles. “And this is also Hell,” he writes in a jail scene. “This, here and now, now and on earth; a place one does not have to dig for.”

I wouldn’t recommend Ironside to anyone except Jim Thompson fans, and even then, only to completists. It’s wildly uneven, but there are bursts of his genius that are definitely worth some attention.

Note: While checking some facts for this review, I discovered that Ironside is coming back to TV this Fall. It premiers October 2, and stars Blair Underwood. The trailer actually looks pretty good.


  1. I had always assumed this was a novelisation so it's great to know that it is for the most part an original work (albeit with portions cannibalised from previous books) - terrific review Kelly, really enjoyed it - thanks.

    1. Glad you liked it, thanks. It's actually really fascinating to see what Thompson does with the restrictions on him. He's not usually known for restraint. That's why, I think, in some places the prose just explodes.

  2. Oh cool, it's Jim Thompson, oh drat it's not very good Jim Thompson...oh cool, it Ironside, oh drat it's not really Ironside... Hold everything, my head's spinning.

    1. You've sort of summed it up, and that's why I said it's "both great and terrible." It's certainly interesting.

  3. I've had this book ever since it first came out, but I've never read it. This is the first time I've been tempted to. Thanks for the in-depth review!

    1. I really couldn't resist, but Thompson is one of my favorites.

  4. You have interested me in picking up the book, as well...just as I've been meaning to read the second and third PRISONER books (the ones after Thomas Disch's)...but I'm not sure I'm too hopeful for the new IRONSIDE series (suspect it will, however, improve on the old one). Didn't know the Walter show was a spinoff...

    1. If I know anything about television, I know that if the new show IS any good, it will be canceled just when I get interested in it.

  5. Like Steve, I've owned this book for decades. Never got around to reading it. But your fine review is tempting me...

    1. I hope you read it. I'd be really curious to read some other opinions on it.

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