James Thompson (1964-2014)

I don’t remember how I first met Jim Thompson. I believe it was around the time his book Jerusalemin veri was published but before he burst upon the world scene with the first of his Inspector Kari Vaara novels, Snow Angels.

Jim and I weren’t buddies, but we were friendly. We had a lot in common. He was from Kentucky; I was from Indiana. We both had moved to Finland for love. We both were professional writers who had started with local Finnish publishers before getting international deals. It is odd how many of the same boxes were checked on our respective histories.

Help and bad reviews.

We were in touch with each other at regular intervals, like before our books were published or during various literary events. He would help promote my books and I would try to push his. He did a lot more for me, too. Jim was successful and experienced and spent hours giving me advice about the business of publishing. Sometimes I contacted him with a simple yes-or-no question and he wanted to spend an hour explaining his view of the situation. I would feel bad that he was wasting so much time on me.

‘That’s enough, Jim,’ I would say. ‘You have been a huge help and I really appreciate it. Please don’t waste all this time on me.’

‘It’s okay, Dave,’ he would reply. He always called me Dave. ‘It is not a problem. I want to help all I can.’

I wanted to help him, too. Jim was a rough and gruff and rude guy sometimes, but he was also surprisingly sensitive. Bad reviews ate at him. Once he was extremely nervous at a book fair because he was going to be interviewed in Finnish. He often got nervous in front of crowds anyway, and having to speak in Finnish made it much worse. When it was over Jim was visibly trembling.

‘That was great!’ I told him. ‘I understood every word, and I was standing way in the back. You did fine.’

‘Really?’ he kept asking, as if he was so insecure he couldn’t believe me. ‘Really, Dave?’

Finland in fiction

Jim became famous worldwide because of his Kari Vaara novels, in which he explored violence, racism, right-wing extremism and government corruption in Finland. Some Finns are touchy about how Finland is portrayed and they were not happy with Jim at all.

James Thompson

One woman in particular was a thorn in his side. She followed him everywhere he went online, posting terrible reviews and complaining about inaccuracies in how he depicted Finland. I thought the whole thing was ludicrous. Jim was writing novels, not travel brochures. Any person who complains about there being fiction in fiction is obviously out of touch with both reality and literature.

Jim saw it that way too, but for some reason this woman especially bothered him. Once he somehow got the idea that this woman had talked to me and he immediately gave me a call. He wanted to know what mischief she was doing now. I had never had any interaction with her and told Jim that she was doing nothing that I knew of and that he had nothing to worry about. He was relieved, but he wanted to keep talking about her. I spent the next hour listening to him and continually reassuring him. It was as if he needed to hear it again and again.

A screwed up book signing

Although I tried to help him out, one time I got him in trouble. We were at the Helsinki Book Fair and I snatched Jim away from his publisher’s booth for a quiet talk in a secluded corner. Unbeknownst to either of us he had been scheduled to do a book signing and there were about a hundred people waiting impatiently for him to appear.

Someone from the publisher was sprinting around the cavernous hall and finally found us.

‘You can talk later!’ he yelled, giving me a particularly dirty look and literally dragging Jim away.

I felt terrible for getting him in trouble and for causing all his fans to wait. I called Jim the next day and profusely apologised.

‘It was no problem, Dave!’ Jim laughed. ‘We were having a good conversation. It was too bad they found us!’

Helsinki Noir

One of the last things Jim was working on was Helsinki Noir, a collection of short crime stories by Finnish writers. He had this grand idea on how to promote it and he wanted my help. The plan was to get three fantastic crime writers – Jim, Tapani Bagge and Leena Lehtolainen – in a room together. I would have the honour of interviewing all three of them at the same time and writing about their interaction.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out. Leena was stuck on a book tour in central Europe somewhere and Jim came down with one of his frequent illnesses. In the end I only got to interview Tapani in person and had to do Leena and Jim via email.

Jim’s agent, Penn Whaling of the Ann Rittenberg Literary Agency, told me that Jim passed away before he was able to complete Helsinki Dead, the last Kari Vaara book. That means Helsinki Noir will probably be his last piece unless there are other unpublished manuscripts yet to see the light of day. I’m glad I was able to experience his excitement and enthusiasm for what will probably be his last book.

Semi-coherent outrage

Sometimes Jim and I didn’t agree. He frowned over my writing style a time or two, and once conclusively declared ‘you need commas.’ For my part, I loved his prose which was as lean as a Victoria’s Secret model but sometimes scratched my head over awkward plot stumbles in his books.

If I was his editor I might have mentioned those plot stumbles, but I can imagine what his reaction would have been. Once I edited something for him and recommended a piece be cut. When I emailed him my suggestion I received in return a vehement, emotional, stream of consciousness text defending that passage. I remember the subject line in the email was a shout of semi-coherent outrage in all-caps. I had a good reason to recommend that passage be cut, but Jim was so passionate about including it that I backed down. Immediately he was conciliatory and tried to convince me that this was the right decision.

‘It is much better with this included, Dave,’ he said. ‘This was the right choice.’

Thanks again, Jim.

The last time I tried to contact Jim was a couple of weeks ago. Over time I was becoming uncomfortable with some of the things I was seeing and hearing so I wanted to see how he was doing. He never replied.

In a way I’m happy he didn’t. The very last time I heard from him was several months ago. I had a new book coming out and Jim remembered that he wanted to do something to help me but couldn’t remember if he had done so yet.

‘Yes, Jim, you already did that,’ I told him. ‘I really appreciate all your help. Thanks for everything.’

I’m glad that this was my last conversation with him.

Thanks again, Jim. Thanks for everything. May your books be read for a thousand years.

Posted in The Blog
One comment on “James Thompson (1964-2014)
  1. Jesse says:

    David,

    I wanted to comment and thank you for the wonderful memorial of Jim. Reading it, I recognized many of the faces of the man that I, too, knew all very briefly.

    I met Jim in 2011, when I first read Snow Angels and felt it would make an amazing film. I got in touch with Jim via email and we very quickly got to talking about the potential of the project. He was very kind, open and unassuming – something very rare to encounter in the world, especially in Finland!

    Over the course of a year and a half we worked hard over a number of drafts and versions of the film while looking for financing to shoot the project first in the winter of 2011, then 2012 and then not at all. Eventually the whole thing was scrapped.

    I remember how often we used to argue about the changes that I wanted to make for the film adaptation, and how passionately and – at times – angrily Jim would defend his position. I remember how we both would trade barbs over emails and then sulk for a few weeks without talking. Only to later trade insights again over beers (and shots of kossu and minttu, which I could never down like he could).

    Jim was also incredibly kind in asking me to contribute to the Helsinki Noir anthology, something that I will always be grateful for. He helped mold my original story, which was drastically different from what is now in the book, to a more coherent and sharper story with just a few insightful and smart notes. Some of which consisted of very direct questions like; “what in the hell is this?”

    The last time I talked to him was almost eight months ago, if not more. I’m not happy with how we ended the talk. It was all very angry and both of us were clearly dealing with issues in our personal lives that clouded our professional relationship.

    I kept thinking that I would see him at the release of the book and could have one more chance to talk and apologize for my part and again reach the kind of dialog that we had had at our best. Sadly, now it will never happen.

    I’m deeply saddened by his passing and will always remember working with him as an incredible growing experience. With all the good and the bad that goes with it. I will always be glad to have met him.

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