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University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

The Kill-Off

cover image By: Thompson, Jim (male)
Publisher: Lion Books, Inc. (LL 142)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 381: PS3539 .H6733 K54 1957
Contributor: J. Lukin


Era: 1950s Author as on Cover: Jim Thompson Geographic Locale: unnamed seaside town (population 1,280), "a few hours train ride from New York City" Date of Publication: 1957  |  Original Date: 1957 Setting: small town; homes and workplaces of this depressed former resort town -- professional classes, entertainers, and poorer people Motives: murder prompted by shame, revenge, or poverty

Plot Summary

In the small East Coast town of Manduwoc, everyone knows everyone else's business. Privacy has ceased to exist, largely thanks to the efforts of the town gossip, Luane Devore, who lies in bed all day telling colorful stories over the phone about her neighbors. When the subjects of her gossip have no dark secrets, she magnanimously makes some up for them. But she may have gone too far: her victims have begun retaliating with gossip of their own, and some aren't going to be satisfied with verbal revenge. Each of the novel's twelve chapters is told from the point of view of a different character, and each introduces more townspeople with a motive for murdering the old yenta. There's the brilliant young man whose psyche and reputation have been ruined by the revelation of his biracial ancestry. There's the politician whose career will be hurt by a rumor of incest. There's the Jewish attorney who may be fed up with talk of his alleged dishonesty. There's Luane's young husband, who is having his first love affair and wants a little freedom. There are many more, each of whom has friends who might just do the job out of loyalty to them. Will we ever see clearly through the seething miasma of shame, rage, and desire that Luane has unleashed and find out who does her in?

Major Characters

Isidore Kossmeyer adult male, Jewish, middle-aged, five feet tall, attorney

Henry Clay Williams adult male, middle-aged, underachiever, county attorney

Luane Devore adult female, 62 years old, chunky, invalid

Hattie adult female, African-American, 40s, beautiful, frightened, housekeeper

Ralph Devore adult male, 40, handsome, odd-job man

Bobbie Ashton adolescent male, biracial, 19 years old, brilliant but embittered, delinquent

Pete Pavlov adult male, about 50 years old, "round-faced, square-built," commercial landlord

Rags McGuire adult male, middle-aged, has-been bandleader who's no longer in touch

Level of Violence

the results of a fatal auto accident are described. We see a person who's been killed by a push down a flight of stairs and read a brief description of two others killed with a shotgun. Violence is described only briefly, but the features of everyday life are dwelt upon with loving disgust.


all relationships are heterosexual. A distinction is made between the saving graces of a love relationship and the destructive properties of a loveless sexual affair.

Gender Roles

many characters fall into stereotypical roles -- the gossipy old lady, the brutally macho paterfamilias, the shrinking violet. The novel tends to valorize the capacity to break with these roles; the most sympathetic characters include a tough young woman, a sensitive husband, and an honest slattern.


the novel presents with brutal honesty the way in which racial prejudice destroys the lives and psyches of its practicioners and victims. The sadomasochistic self-loathing of the young man who discovers his biracial origin is a major theme. The black housekeeper thinks in a vitiated dialect that might be offensive to some.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

one character is a derelict whose only goal in life is his next drink. Another is a pusher who reforms and gets his client off the needle.

Law Enforcement

no law enforcement officers appear. The two attorneys are mildly interested in solving crime and are helped by the murderer's confession.

Subject Headings

Gossip/ Murder/ Revenge/ Poverty/ Small town life

Psychological Elements

the novel is populated by people whose dedication to a single habit or idea has eclipsed their humanity. These habits may be very concrete, like alcohol, or abstract, like family pride. An exception to the novel's condemnation of such grotesques is the musician who has lost his family and is sustained by a devotion to an artistic ideal.

Film Adaptations

The Kill-Off, 1989, Filmworld