A triple-decker biography of the darkest of all practitioners of noir fiction (The Stranger Inside Me, The Grifters, etc.). After a brisk, incisive critical overview of Thompson's work, Polito, editor of Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson (1988), launches into a hard-driving account, based largely on interviews, of the novelist's life that makes it sound like a hellish parody of a cautionary pulp fable. Like a Hollywood writer, Thompson cherished an oedipal ambivalence toward his charming, irresponsible father, an Oklahoma sheriff. He also had, in the best Hollywood manner, a shy, courtly, hypersensitive demeanor that belied both the anarchic fury that simmered inside and the rough, rolling-stone background that took him from work as a knowing bellboy to jobs in the Texas oilfields, with time out for marriage, children, and a stint as a hobo before the Depression turned him into a radical, a WPA writer, and finally a poet of failure (""Thompson's great subject""). Although Polito emphasizes his subject's formative apprenticeship in true-crime writing, Thompson, again in approved movie-hero fashion, churned out millions of words in a dizzying variety of assignments--articles for agricultural and industrial journals, short stories and memoirs, labor news and interviews--before publishing, at the age of 42, Nothing More Than Murder, the first of his jet-black studies of doomed criminal sociopaths. Finally finding his niche, Thompson produced, in a miraculous year and a half (1952-54), 12 paperback novels, including most of the work by which he is best known, before beginning a long, painful slide toward piecework (TV episodes, novelizations, a hundred abortive projects), premature aging, and oblivion. Polito not only takes Thompson's measure as a man and writer, but makes you feel what it must have been like to be this quiet, raging man in a biography nearly as dark as its subject's own fiction.