Savage Night by Jim Thompson (1953): Prolific thriller writer Jim Thompson wrote the sort of pulp that literary critics came to love over the course of his lengthy career. There's a fully realized sense to the worlds he created in his novels, even an early one like Savage Night, that makes them unforgettably bleak.
He most often focused his narratives on murderers and monsters; Savage Night makes its first-person narrator, a Mob hit-man who's been on the run for years only to be pulled back in for one more assassination, pitiful and human and utterly awful. But so is almost everyone around him, as is typical in a Thompson novel: there are very few good people in the world his characters inhabit.
For more than half a decade, the narrator 'hid' inside the guise of a poor but honest man. And he truly believes that he was a decent person for those years. But by the end of the novel, even that assessment will be in doubt. Thompson's characters often possess radically destabilized senses of self. Nothing is certain.
Savage Night hums along in its brevity. Our narrator becomes, if not sympathetic, than at least pitiable. And the oft-discussed final thirty pages take the characters into the realms of broken consciousness and the almost surreal. It's one hell of a denouement. Highly recommended.
Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson (1964): Famously moved to French Africa and adapted to film by Bernard Tavernier in 1981 as Coup de Torchon, Pop. 1280 occurs in novel form in the pre-World-War-One American South, in the smallest county in its state. And possibly the most corrupt.
Our first-person narrator, the sheriff of this small county, makes the psychotic narrating lawman of Thompson's earlier The Killer Inside Me look like Sherlock Holmes by comparison. His sole redeeming feature is disgust at the racism of the poor whites around him. That's it. That's all he's got.
Well, perhaps he's redeemed also by his role as Nemesis to some pretty terrible people -- but as he also wipes out the innocent, he is, ultimately, no saint. Our narrator has spent his life as a lawman gliding by, doing little, taking bribes, protecting the status quo -- and pretending to be far, far stupider and more guileless than he truly is. Or maybe he's always been doing terrible things behind the scenes.
Among other pleasures, Pop. 1280 offers the reader a grad course in unreliable narration -- an escalating, almost vertiginous lesson in this by the end of the novel. The inside of the narrator's head turns out to be a labyrinth. But the Minotaur seems to be all the bloody, terrible, despicable things people do to one another because they're damned and because they can. There is no Theseus, and no thread leading to safety. This is perhaps Thompson's bleakest depiction of humanity in general and America in particular. Highly recommended.