Time for another Patricia Highsmith novel, and while I still have the Ripley novels to read, I turned instead to A Suspension of Mercy–mainly because I bought it on a Kindle daily deal. The novel does not have the complexity of the excellent Strangers on a Train and it wasn’t as good as The Cry of the Owl, but nonetheless I enjoyed it and was rather surprised by how much the book’s narrative technique reminded me of a Ruth Rendell novel.
A Suspension of Mercy is set in England and concerns a young married couple who live in a fairly remote cottage in Suffolk. This location was selected with the idea in mind that the quiet and isolation will support their respective careers, but that decision is meeting with mixed success. American Sydney Bartleby, a writer, has received rejection after rejection while his wife Alicia spends her time painting without the pressure of needing to make an income. The cottage was “mostly a wedding present” from Alicia’s parents, and the freshly married couple have lived there for a year and a half when the novel begins. The fact that Sydney’s career is stagnant isn’t helping either their festering marriage or his temperament, and since their isolation is relieved only by the occasional visit from London friends, there’s not much escape or distraction, so they are rather pleased when an older widow, Mrs. Lilybanks, a woman who turns out to have a bad heart, moves in the long-vacant house next door.
It doesn’t take a genius of observation to realize that Alicia and Sydney are having marriage problems; Mrs. Lilybanks sees it and Sydney’s writing collaborator, Alex who has a steady income from a London publishing job, also notices. Everyone chalks this up to Sydney’s failure to sell his novel and the screenplays he co-writes with Alex. But since Sydney is a writer, that means he has an active imagination. He secretly has fantasies of killing his wife who aggravates him with almost every word she speaks. He records some of his murderous ideas in a journal, and even goes as far as to plan where he’d bury the body–buying a new rug and pretending to use the old one as a means of disposing of Alicia.
and one day he’d go just a little too far and kill her. He had thought of it many times. One evening when they were here alone. He’d strike her in anger once, and instead of stopping, he’d just keep on until she was dead.
What of Alicia? Well she sometimes takes holidays away from Sydney to give him (and herself) space. Given his current temper, she takes one, returns home, immediately takes another, and then simply disappears….
When Alicia’s weekend getaway stretches into weeks and then months, various people in her life begin to suspect that she’s the victim of foul play. Sydney with his lurid imagination doesn’t help matters very much, and ironically as a web of suspicion tightens around Sydney, his writing career improves. Alone in the house, plotting crime scenarios that border on the fantastic, Sydney immerses himself in work and becomes farther removed from reality.
Sometimes he plotted the murders, the robbery, the blackmail of people he and Alicia knew, though the people themselves knew nothing about it. Alex had died five times at least in Sydney’s imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London.
One of the novel’s big questions is whether or not Sydney is actually capable of murdering his wife, and there are a few points in the story where the author toys with this possibility and by extension toys with the reader. I wasn’t entirely convinced that Sydney, faced with a murder charge, would have acted the way he did, and for this reader, he never developed beyond a two-dimensional character. I also wasn’t entirely convinced by Alicia’s actions. It’s as though both Alicia and Sydney act for the convenience of the plot–even if sometimes their actions are illogical. That complaint stated, the novel’s superb ending more than compensated for its earlier flaws. Also enjoyable is the way Highsmith shows that no one in Alicia and Sydney’s life remains neutral. We’d expect Alicia’s family to side against Sydney, of course, but true to Highsmith fashion, she shows how opportunistic people seize the moment, so we see Alex land on the lucrative option–friendship be damned.