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 assignmentsarticles for agricultural and industrial journals, short stories and memoirs, labor news and interviewsbefore 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 (195254), 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.