“He felt he was sliding down a sewer.”
In Patricia Highsmith’s psychological novel The Blunderer, two very different married men are connected by murder. The book opens with a violent murder committed by bookshop owner, Kimmel. He follows his wife who is travelling on a bus, and then when the bus stops, he lures her into a remote area with the pretense of talking. He bludgeons and stabs her to death. Walter Stackhouse, a lawyer who is miserable in his marriage to volatile, mentally ill Clara, sees an article about the murder. Since the murdered woman’s husband, Kimmel, has an alibi, and there are no leads, the case is not solved. Walter is interested in the case; he cuts out the article from the paper, and hypothesizing that Kimmel was the murderer, he foolishly visits Kimmel’s grubby bookshop, and mentions the murder. Kimmel imagines that Walter is just another nosy person come to gawk. Things should end there, but since Walter orders a book, Kimmel has Walter’s name and address.
A few scenes illustrate the miserable state of Walter’s marriage. Walter tries hard to please Clara, but she’s mentally ill and is becoming increasingly unstable and demanding. Clara has alienated all of Walter’s friends, and several social gatherings end leaving Walter embarrassed by his wife’s nastiness. We see the Stackhouses’ toxic marriage when they are on a week’s holiday with their unneutered fox terrier, Jeff. At the Lobster Pot, Clara orders her favourite dish: cold lobster with mayonnaise. Walter orders broiled fish:
“I thought you’d have meat tonight, Walter. If you have fish again, Jeff gets nothing today.“
“Alright,” Walter said. “I’ll order a steak. Jeff can have most of it.“
“You say it in such a martyred tone!”
The steaks were not very good at the Lobster Pot. Walter had ordered steak the other night because of Jeff. Jeff refused to eat fish. “It’s perfectly okay with me, Clara, let’s not argue about anything our last night.”
“Who’s arguing? You’re trying to start something.”
But after all the steak had been ordered. Clara had had her way, and she sighed and looked off into space, apparently thinking of something else.
At this point, Clara lets unneutered fox terrier off leash and he proceeds to hump people in the restaurant. She’s asked repeatedly by the waiter to curb her dog, and Walter is the one who feels embarrassed and eventually stops the dog–not Clara. The implicit idea here is that there’s a pecking order at the Stackhouse home, and Walter comes after the dog.
Clara’s controlling, manipulative behaviour becomes more hostile and bizarre, and the Stackhouse’s marriage spins out-of-control. Finally, Walter can’t take any more and he asks for a divorce. Clara’s answer is to try suicide; she’s threatened it before. Walter feels horribly guilty after Clara’s suicide attempt and is ready to try to keep the marriage afloat, but her behaviour slides immediately. This time she accuses Walter of having an affair with Ellie, a young woman who attended a party at the Stackhouse residence. Walter storms out, seeks out Ellie, and so an affair begins. Once again Walter tells Clara he wants a divorce. Clara leaves on a bus trip, ostensibly to see her dying mother–a woman she hates. Walter follows the bus–all the time in the back of his head is the idea that he will lure Clara into a remote area near the bus stop, kill her. But something goes wrong. Walter follows the bus with murderous fantasies, but his wife is not at the bus stop. The next day, Clara is found dead at the base of a cliff near the bus stop. She’s an apparent suicide
Enter another major player in the game of cat and mouse, sadistic detective, Corby. He fixates on the connections between the Kimmel murder and the death of Clara Stackhouse. Corby is convinced that there’s a connection between the two widowers, and he begins reinvestigating the Kimmel murder. Corby’s relentless pursuit of Kimmel and Stackhouse brings all three men to breaking point.
Strangers on a Train is a brilliant book about 2 men who meet, by accident on a train, and they have an exchange regarding murder. There’s a similar theme at work here–two men, unhappily married, connected by murder. Walter Stackhouse is an interesting character–a man who contemplates murder and who feels guilty because he thinks about it. He had an opportunity to be free when Clara tried to commit suicide, but he is the one who saved her. Highsmith shows us that there’s a world between thinking about murder and actually committing the deed. Walter does not have what it takes in spite of intense provocation. Kimmel, however, is pure evil.
While the story is gripping, it’s the psychological undercurrents that make this a powerful book. Walter is the blunderer, making one horrible mistake after another. Under scrutiny following his wife’s death, his life unravels. He’s a difficult, complex character–his wife suggests he’s having an affair with Ellie, and he has one. He reads a story about a murdered woman and hypothesizes that her husband is the murderer. The story places the idea to do the same thing in Walter’s mind. There’s more than an edge of masochism and weakness to Walter’s behaviour. Finally Walter has terrible taste in women. To sadistic, mentally abusive Clara, he’s a doormat, and there’s the sense that any relationship with Ellie could go in the same direction. And what’s with Ellie, hanging around sniffing after Walter while his wife is in hospital? There’s one time sex with Ellie, and she says she’s ‘not that kind of girl’ and demands he get a divorce, pronto. Of course, he doesn’t know what normal is, so he was unwise to step from one toxic relationship into another. While sex doesn’t enter the book much, there are masochistic tendencies, a sadist in charge of the case and the impotent Kimmel’s lucrative sideline, so sexual undercurrents are very much at play here. Even with the dog.
(There’s a film version of this–not nearly as good as the book.)