Category Archives: Highsmith Patricia

The Blunderer: Patricia Highsmith

“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.)



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People Who Knock On the Door: Patricia Highsmith (1983)

I tend to associate Patricia Highsmith with crime novels, but People Who Knock on the Door is a study of human behaviour. This is the story of how one man, a husband and father becomes a religious fanatic. So a story of obsession, self-righteousness, intolerance and hypocrisy. First the disclaimer: I am not religious, but if religion:

1. helps someone be a better/happier person,

2. helps deal with life

3. keeps someone off the streets

4. keeps someone from various deviant behaviours

5. gives your life meaning or structure

then more power to you..

Just don’t come knocking on my door selling your beliefs. It could get ugly. So now that I’ve got that out of the way, onto the book.

The Alderman family consists of insurance salesman dad, Richard, his wife Lois and their two sons: Arthur, who is about to head off to college and Robbie. Richard hasn’t done in well in life as he’d hoped and maybe.. just maybe… there’s a tad of resentment that he married young. Well no matter. Shortly after the novel opens, Robbie has a health crisis and almost dies. He recovers and Richard decides that god intervened. The next thing you know Richard’s a born-again Christian. It’s not so bad at first, but then Richard starts laying down the law regarding Arthur’s love life, and when Arthur won’t bend to his dad’s demands (this involves his girlfriend, Maggie Brewster, getting an abortion, just FYI), Richard closes the purse strings and Arthur’s college plans for Columbia collapse.

There’s the sense that home life chez Alderman wasn’t that much fun before Richard’s conversion, but after that happy event, the domestic atmosphere becomes strained. Lois, who volunteers at a children’s home, becomes Sweden, trying to keep everyone happy (impossible) and Robbie goes along with his dad’s new found faith. And what’s up with Robbie hanging out with all those middle-aged men? (why do I hear banjos?) And why is Irene, a former prostitute, now a born-again waitress, constantly pestering Richard to come over to her place as she’s in desperate need of counseling and may revert to turning tricks if Richard doesn’t come to her house pronto.

And the Brewsters,” Richard went on with faint contempt. “Are they any better? No, Money doesn’t gloss over their life-style. Nice clothes, a fine house, doesn’t hide anything. And you hang out with them.”

His father was maybe jealous, Arthur thought, as well as off the beam. “They’re certainly not the richest people in this town,” Arthur said.” I don’t think they flaunt their money. Not at all.”

“I’m saying that money doesn’t make arrogance look any nicer. What they flaunt is a lack of human decency, basic morals. I wouldn’t have the Brewsters as my clients. Just tonight, I’m looking through my list again, getting rid of two families, one of them every bit as well-off as the Brewsters. I’m suggesting they go to another insurance investment in town.

Everything in the Alderman house goes downhill. I must say that Arthur showed remarkable restraint towards his father especially after other members of the church, and the ex-prostitute, keep popping up with advice and salient bible quotes. The plot shows how when one member of the family takes the moral highground, using religion, their position becomes unassailable. This story resonated with me as I once worked with a woman whose husband had an affair. Their marriage ‘survived’ but in the aftermath she became born-again and was constantly quoting her pastor at her husband. He was never going to be allowed to forget what he did. I don’t know how he kept sane, but then again perhaps it was their private purgatory. Why knows? I didn’t care for any of the characters at all with the exception of the boozy neighbour next door. Not my favourite Highsmith. Not even close.


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The Price of Salt: Patricia Highsmith (1952)

Working as a temp during the Christmas season at a bustling upscale New York department store, 19-year-old Therese is an aspiring set designer. She has a small apartment and a devoted, boyfriend, Richard, and yet while her whole life and career are ahead of her, she feels that something is missing. Working as a temp “intensified things that always bothered her […] the pointless actions, the meaningless chores that seemed to keep her from doing what she wanted to do, might have done.” Since Therese wants to break into theater set design, her feelings of ennui, being locked in the doldrums, are perfectly natural. But is there something else simmering in Therese? Abandoned as a child and brought up in a Catholic orphanage, it’s possible that Therese’s sense of disconnection is rooted in her early lack of attachments. Perhaps that explains her lukewarm feelings towards Richard.

Then one day, a woman comes into the store looking for a gift:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away.

Therese waits on this customer and later sends her a card. The woman, married with a child, is Carol, and she returns to the store. Soon a relationship strikes up between the two women. Just what this relationship is, isn’t clear to Therese at all (or this reader) and at one point, it seems possible that Therese is attracted to the older woman. But then again, Therese has no family. Is she seeking friendship? Is she looking for a mother figure? An older sister? Soon Therese, neglecting an increasingly sulky Richard, is spending time at the woman’s large country home, and it becomes evident that Carol, in the midst of a grubby divorce, has a lot of problems.

The plot moves forward with Carol and Therese’s growing relationship, Therese’s burgeoning career, Carol’s divorce, and the small circle of society in which both women move. While it’s not clear exactly what is brewing between Carol and Therese, equally subdued characters, suddenly Therese is avoiding Richard. Curiously Carol, in the midst of ending her own unhappy marriage, encourages Therese to keep trying with Richard. When Carol’s friend, Abby enters the scene, jealousy rears its head.

Weaved with an incredible sense of loneliness and individual isolation, The Price of Salt is a love story, but since its creator is Highsmith, while there’s tenderness and sensitivity, there’s also the threat of violence. When the two women ditch New York and head west, Carol’s unpleasant husband, Harge, bent on winning the custody suit, has the two women followed by a grubby PI. While Carol is somewhat discreet, Therese, who has no idea what she’s up against, makes clumsy mistakes. There are touches of Thelma and Louise, and there were so many ways this novel could have taken. Instead, we see two women drawn to each other and then separated by a society that censors love between two women, and the love between these two women is contrasted to the male-female relationships in these pages which include conformity and possession. Particularly powerful is the idea that it’s so much easier to conform to society’s expectations of heterosexuality. Therese loves Richard’s family, and clearly wants to belong on some level, but then Carol is proof that marriage and a child is a poisonous road to travel.

I’ve never done anything to embarrass him socially, and that’s all he cares about really. There’s a certain woman at the club I wish he’d married. Her life is entirely filled with giving exquisite little dinner parties and being carried out of the best bars feet first–she’s made her husband’s advertising business a great success, so he smiles on her little faults. Harge wouldn’t smile, but he’d have some definite reason for complaint. I think he picked me out like a rug for his living room, and he made a bad mistake. I doubt if he’s capable of loving anyone, really. What he has is a kind of acquisitiveness, which isn’t much separate from his ambition. It’s getting to be a disease, isn’t it, not being able to love?


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The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

With the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January on my watchlist, I moved the novel to the top of the TBR pile. I haven’t read a great deal of Highsmith, and I’ve yet to get to the Ripley novels, but Strangers on a Train was a fantastic read as well as being my favourite Hitchcock film. So I began The Two Faces of January with some high expectations which weren’t quite met.

Rydal Keener is a law school graduate, the son of a Harvard Law professor who’s spending a small inheritance idling in Europe “as long as it lasted.” Now 25, he’s been away for 2 years, and not even the death of his controlling, perfectionist father has persuaded him to return home. Rydal is the black sheep of the family, and with a very unpleasant incident involving a 15-year-old cousin in his past, Rydal is in no hurry to return to America. It’s as though he’s waiting for something to happen. …

The two facesFate throws Rydal into a collision course with married couple: Chester and Colette MacFarland. Middle-aged Chester, a con man whose lucrative specialty is stocks, is in Greece hoping that the heat in America will cool down in his absence. He wants to show his young wife, Colette, on her first trip to Europe, a good time, and he’s stifled her complaints with a “new set of luggage and a mink jacket.

After a few days in Greece, Chester found that he breathed more easily. He enjoyed the strange meals at the tavernas, the little oily dishes of this and that, washed down with ouzo or a bottle of wine that usually neither of them liked, though Chester always finished it. Colette bought five pairs of shoes, and Chester had a suit made of English tweed in a fraction of the time and for less than half what it would have cost him in the States. Still, it was a habit, a nervous habit, for him to glance around the hotel lobby to see if there were anyone who looked like a police agent. He doubted if they would send a man over for him, but the F.B.I had representatives abroad, he supposed. All they would need was a photograph, the collected testimony of a few swindled people, and, by checking with passport authorities, they could discover his name.

Rydal becomes swept up in MacFarland’s affairs when a man is killed. Since Rydal speaks fluent Greek and has plenty of contacts, he helps Chester and Colette with new, forged passports and an escape….

Colette is attracted to Rydal, and the feeling is mutual, so to Chester and even outsiders (the police, Rydal’s friends), Rydal’s involvement is easily explained, and so a triangle emerges with Colette in the middle of a young man she’s attracted to and her much older father-figure of a husband.

Men whom she looked at usually felt transfixed and fascinated by her gaze; there was something speculative in it, and nearly every man, whatever his age, thought, ‘She looks as if she’s falling in love with me. Could it be?’

Highsmith makes it quite clear that this is not a standard love triangle. While Rydal appears to be drawn to Colette (and it’s true that there’s an attraction), she seems to be just another means of resolving Rydal’s past, but primarily she’s an object that ‘belongs’ to Chester with little intrinsic value of her own. We know, from Rydal’s thoughts, that Colette reminds him of his cousin Agnes and the unresolved relationship he had with her years ago, but also, and much more significantly, Chester is almost a mirror image of Rydal’s father. But whereas Rydal’s father was the epitome of self-righteous respectability, Chester is a smarmy con man, and Rydal is drawn to Chester in order to resolve and relive his relationship with his father on a different playing field.

We know almost immediately that Chester and Rydal play games with fate. Chester pressed his luck when he began selling “Walkie Kars,” and “something–temptation, bravado, a sense of humour? had compelled him to try peddling the damned things” even though he had no supply. Rydal is a game player, and allows his choices to be dictated by random events. Rydal’s life was shaped by his domineering father, and Chester’s life took a specific turn after his father’s bankruptcy:

the girl he had been engaged to, had broken the engagement–instantly, on hearing of the bankruptcy–so that the shock of his father’s situation and the loss of Annette had seemed a single, world-shattering catastrophe. Chester had left school and tried to apply what he had learned of business administration to the saving of an artificial-leather factory up in New Hampshire. He hadn’t saved it. Flat broke, he had sworn to himself he would get rich, and fast. So he started to operate, more and more shadily, he could see it now, though when he had started out, he hadn’t intended to get rich by being crooked. It had been a gradual thing. A gradual bad thing, Chester knew. But now he was stuck with it, really deep in it, hooked on it like an addict on dope.

In Strangers on a Train, Highsmith drops remarks about the two main male characters, Bruno and Guy being “opposites,” yet there are also times when they seem to be two halves of the same person. Shades of that sort of strange chemistry exist here in The Two Faces of January, but it’s much less successful. The father-son dynamic is seen through Rydal’s relationship with his father and also in his relationship with Chester, but at the same time there’s the feeling that just as Chester took the road to crime after bitter adversity, Rydal is also capable of making the same sort of poor choices. And in fact that’s just what Rydal does when he becomes involved with the MacFarlands. Could Rydal become like Chester in another 15 years or so?

No shock here since this is Highsmith, but this is a psychologically complex tale. A great deal of the plot is a story of flight as Rydal organizes and arranges escape for the MacFarlands. Unfortunately, for this reader, in spite of the fact that these characters are on the run with the police in hot pursuit, there’s remarkably little tension until the novel’s excellent conclusion. The idea of the plot is good: three characters thrown together by fate who connect for reasons that are both obvious and not so obvious, but the execution lacks tension in spite of the high stakes situation.

The title evokes the image of the two-faced god who looks to the future and the past. When we first meet Rydal, he’s at a crossroads in his life–a phase of non-action that he’s spun out as far as he can, and, while he’s in no hurry to reconnect with his past, he is about to finally return to America. Chester has fled from his past to Europe. Both Chester and Rydal have murky pasts and their futures, whatever futures they may have, are connected. While Chester reminds Rydal of his father, both Chester and Rydal’s father are, in a sense, men with two faces: Chester appears to be an affluent man but in reality, he’s a cheap con man running out of steam, and Rydal’s father, the eminently respectable law professor leaves a monstrous impression on the reader.


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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction ed. by Sarah Weinman

With the title Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction, how could I pass up reading this collection of 14 stories? And here’s the line-up:

  • Patricia Highsmith: The Heroine
  • Nedra Tyre: A Nice Place to Stay
  • Shirley Jackson: Louisa, Please Come Home
  • Barbara Callahan: Lavender Lady
  • Vera Caspary: Sugar and Spice
  • Helen Neilsen: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
  • Dorothy Hughes: Everybody Needs a Mink
  • Joyce Harrington: The Purple Shroud
  • Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Stranger in the Car
  • Charlotte Armstrong: The Splintered Monday
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis: Lost Generation
  • Margaret Millar: The People Across the Canyon
  • Miriam Allen Deford: Mortmain
  • Celia Fremlin: A Case of Maximum Need

Some of the names were familiar thanks to previous reading: Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, A Suspension of Mercy , The Cry of the Owl as well as a couple of short story collections) Vera Caspary (Bedelia, Laura, The Secrets of Grown-ups) and Dorothy Hughes (The Expendable Man, Ride the Pink Horse. I’d also heard of, and been meaning to read Celia Fremlin, Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Neilsen, Margaret Millar (who seems to have faded from view while her husband Ross Macdonald remains widely read). Unknowns were: Miriam Allen Deford, Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Joyce Harrington, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. After reading the line-up, I knew I’d come away pleased to meet some old friends and delighted to find new names to explore. My expectations were fulfilled–although oddly enough, I was disappointed in the Highsmith story which was rather predictable, and the Dorothy Hughes story which fell flat.

Troubled DaughtersBut onward…

The gem of the collection here, and why am I not surprised, belongs to the Divine Vera Caspary. Yes, Sugar and Spice is a wonderful tale–either a long short story or a novella–it’s hard to tell on the kindle. This is a story within a story which opens with a California woman named Lissa who has a visitor one Sunday afternoon named Mike Jordan. He asks to put through a long-distance call to New York, and when he returns from making the call he asks Lissa if she would like to know who murdered the famous actor, box-office heartthrob, Gilbert Jones. This is an  unsolved murder, so naturally Lissa wants to know the answer, and Mike tells his tale which goes back several decades. In his youth, Mike made the acquaintance of two cousins–the very beautiful but very poor Phyllis, and the very plump, unattractive but very rich Nancy. These two girls grew up in bitter rivalry, and just how this rivalry plays out creates a tale of jealousy and revenge with Nancy and Phyllis fighting over the same man on more than one occasion. Phyllis, elegant, cool and slim looks beautiful no matter how poorly she’s dressed, and little fat Nancy wears the most expensive designer creations and always manages to look like a stale, overstuffed cupcake. This story would have made a great film, but that’s not too surprising given how many story treatments, screenplays and various adaptations Vera Caspary penned for the big screen.

Another favourite for this reader is “Louisa, Please Come Home.” This is the story of a young woman who flees her affluent home on the eve of her sister’s wedding. Is she motivated by fear, a desire for independence or is this simply an attempt to upstage her sister? I kept waiting for the motivation to be revealed, but author Shirley Jackson doesn’t take the stereotypical approach here, and instead the ending, which leaves more questions than answers, is deeply unsettling. Here’s Louisa, at a distance, keeping an eye on her disappearance through the newspaper stories:

I followed everything in the papers. Mrs. Peacock and I used to read them at the breakfast table over our second cup of coffee before I went off to work.

“What do you think about this girl who disappeared over in Rockville?” Mrs. Peacock would say to me, and I’d shake my head sorrowfully and say that a girl must be really crazy to leave a handsome, luxurious home like that, or that I had kind of a notion that maybe she didn’t leave at all–maybe the family had her locked up somewhere because she was a homicidal maniac. Mrs. Peacock always loved anything about homicidal maniacs.

Sarah Weinman’s introduction addresses the history of Domestic fiction, some of the best known names in the field, and the contribution to crime fiction by female authors. The stories in this collection address the rot within the domestic environment and also examines assaults against domestic security, so one story includes the Nanny from Hell while another story includes a nurse who simply can’t wait for her patient to die. We see women as victims, women as perps, women fighting over men, and while there are a number of deranged and damaged females in these pages, underneath the collection lies the unasked question: what happened to these women? Have they been damaged/driven to the point of insanity due to the constrictive roles handed to them by society? It’s an unsettling thought. In Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s excellent story, Stranger in the  Car, family patriarch, the very wealthy Carrol Charleroy, a man who imagines that he is ‘in charge’ of his household, discovers the hard way that he’s ‘managed’ by the women in his life, and he’s about to learn that he really knows nothing at all about these women–women he’s known for years. And finally, I have to mention Celia Fremlin’s wickedly nasty story A Case of Maximum Need, the story of an old lady who gets a phone installed in her apartment by a do-gooder who has no idea what she is dealing with. I particularly liked this story as I knew a woman in her 80s who masqueraded as a 29 year-old-woman in many internet courtship relationships with young males. I wonder what Celia Fremlin would make of that? Anyway, there’s a good range here, and this volume is especially recommended for those, like me, who’d like to discover some ‘new’ writers. It’s nice to see some of these names resurrected from obscurity.

Review copy


Filed under Caspary Vera, Fiction, Fremlin Celia, Highsmith Patricia, Hughes Dorothy B., Jackson Shirley, Millar Margaret, Neilsen Helen, Sanxay Holding Elizabeth

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

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 mercyA 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.


Filed under Fiction, Highsmith Patricia

Eleven by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of those novelists I’d meant to read for some years–mostly I’ll admit for film-book connection, so when I picked up my first Highsmith, the logical choice was Strangers on a Train. That’s my all-time favourite Hitchcock film, btw, and I was delighted to discover that the book was even darker than the film. Then earlier this year, I read The Cry of the Owl. It’s the story of a wreck of a man who moves away from New York for a fresh start in a small Pennsylvania town. Lonely and depressed, he becomes obsessed with watching the domestic routine of a young woman, and when she catches him (and thinks he’s a peeping Tom), instead of screaming and calling for the coppers, she invites him in. The Cry of the Owl is an exploration of the horrors of small town life complete with gossip, judgment and condemnation, and for any one interested, like me, in film, Claude Chabrol made a film of The Cry of the Owl.  But now to Eleven, Highsmith’s first short story collection.

After reading Eleven, the main thing that struck me about Highsmith’s work is that she’s firmly rooted in horror. That conclusion surprised me as I considered the two Highsmith books I read primarily as psychological novels. I’m not talking about the slasher type of horror gore, but something that’s harder to peg–something a lot more sophisticated.  The short stories in Eleven give the reader a concentrated dose of Highsmith’s view of life, and Highsmith’s horror is the horror of everyday life, the suffocating routine and the sometimes-sick power dynamic in relationships, a touch of the supernatural and even in the case of two of the stories in this collection–the horror of snails. It takes a special mind to create  two stories in which snails appear as destructive terrifying creatures. These eleven stories cover a range of various subjects. The Barbarians explores bullying and the strain of living under the threat of violence while in  The Birds Poised to Fly, we meet Don, a man whose disappointment in love leads to a cruel deception.

For those interested, here’s a complete list of the contents:

The Snail-Watcher

The Birds Poised to Fly

The Terrapin

When the Fleet was in at Mobile

The Quest for Blank Claveringi

The Cries of Love

Mrs. Afton among thy Green Braes

The Heroine

Another Bridge to Cross

The Barbarians

The Empty Birdhouse

In this collection, some of Highsmith’s protagonists are deranged, others are strange, and still others endure various types of stress until they crack….

 The Terrapin yields a slice of life in a particularly sick household shared by a young boy, Victor and his mother, an over-bearing Hungarian-French woman. Victor’s parents are divorced and his absent father, who’s managed to escape the domestic yoke and now lives in Europe, is  a successful businessman who exports perfumes. Victor’s mother still receives money from her ex-husband, and the money is much-needed. She used to be a children’s book illustrator, but recently there’s little work:

a few illustrations now and then for magazines for children, how to make paper pumpkins and black paper cats for Hallowe’en and things like that, though she took her portfolio around to the publishers all the time.

Although Victor is 11 (same as the title of the book, so Highsmith is consistent here), he’s infantilized by his mother. He’s inappropriately dressed in shorts that are “too small” and tight, and this makes him the object of ridicule from boys his own age. His clothes are just one symptom of his unhealthy relationship with his mother. She constantly reinforces her view of Victor as a baby–at one point, for example, she makes Victor recite the days of the week. She seems oblivious of the constant degradation she subjects him to. This is a woman with problems:

His mother put her jewelled bands on her hips. “do you know, Veec-tor, you are a little bit strange in the head?” She nodded. “You are seeck. Psychologically seeck. And retarded, do you know that? You have the behaviour of a leetle boy five years old,” she said slowly and weightily. “It is just as well you spend your Saturdays indoors. Who knows if you would not walk in front of a car, eh? But that is why I love you, little Veector.” She put her arm around his shoulders, pulled him against her and for an instant Victor’s nose pressed into her large, soft bosom. She was wearing her flesh-colored dress, the one you could see through a little where her breast stretched it out.

The already-poisonous relationship between this troubled pair turns even nastier when Victor’s mother brings home a terrapin. He sees it as a pet, and to his mother, it’s dinner….

Of the entire collection, my favourite story is When the Fleet was in at Mobile. When the story begins, Geraldine chloroforms her husband, Clark who’s sleeping deeply after an all-night booze-up:

She ran in her silk-stockinged feet to the rag drawer below the kitchen cabinets, tore a big rag from a worn-out towel, and then a smaller one. She folded the big rag to a square lump and on second thought wet it at the sink, and after some trouble because her hands had started shaking, tied it to the front of her nose and mouth with the cloth belt of the dress she’d just ironed and laid out to wear. Then she got the claw hammer from the tool drawer in case she would need it, and went out on the back porch. She drew the straight chair close to the bed, sat down, and unstoppered the bottle and soaked the smaller rag. She held the rag over his chest for a few moments, then brought it slowly up toward his nose. Clark didn’t move. But it must be doing something to him, she thought, she could smell it herself, sweet and sick like funeral flowers, like death itself.

Leaving him for dead, she makes a break for freedom and ‘happier days’ spent in Mobile.

She still had that combination everyone said was unique of come-hither plus the bloom of youth, and how many girls had that? How many girls could be proposed to by a minister’s son, which was what had happened to her in Montgomery, and then had a life like she’d had in Mobile, the toast of the fleet? She laughed archly at herself in the mirror, though without making a sound–but who was there to hear her if she did laugh–and jogged her brown-blonde curls superfluously with her palms.

Geraldine, an unreliable narrator, is reminiscent of A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Blanche Dubois for her insane, or is it highly sanitized, version of events regarding the men who’ve helped her in a comfort-0f-strangers-way?

These eleven stories, which offer concentrated doses of Highsmith’s familiar themes also illustrate Highsmith’s range. From the macabre to the mundane, Highsmith’s world reveals that danger, cruelty and injustice are just one step away–lurking in the shadows, and as Graham Greene points out in the excellent introduction, Highsmith’s vision is of a “world without moral endings.”


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Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

I haven’t watched every film ever made by Alfred Hitchcock, but of the ones I’ve seen, my favourite is Strangers on a Train. I have a thing for trains, and then the plot–meeting a perfect stranger–a complete pyscho–and living to regret your little chat…well it appeals to me. And so it was probably just a matter of time before I got around to reading the book the film is based on. I don’t know what I expected really–probably a good tale, but in Highsmith’s psychological crime novel, I got more than I bargained for.

Highsmith (1921-1995) is what I term a lurker. By that I mean her books are just out of sight–off in the periphery, but then we come across her name in unexpected moments. Many of her novels have been made into films–including the phenomenal Purple Noon (Plein Soleil)–a terrific film starring Alain Delon. This film is based on Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley–a film that spawned a Hollywood remake in 1999. As a consequence of the resurgence of interest in Ripley, Highsmith novels are receiving a little more attention, and deservedly so.

Strangers on a Train begins with young, promising architect, Guy Haines, travelling from New York back to his home town, Metcalf, in Texas. He’s received a letter from his estranged wife, the chronically adulterous Miriam, asking him to return to discuss a matter of some  importance. Miriam is pregnant with another man’s child, and Guy hopes that she is finally ready to discuss a divorce. They’ve been separated for years, and Guy now has a love interest–Anne, the daughter of one of New York’s finest families. Things are looking up for Guy. His career is about to take off and once free of Miriam, he’ll marry into wealth and mingle with New York’s high society.

On the train, Guy meets a man about his age named Charles Anthony Bruno, the scion of a wealthy family. Bruno is on his way to Santa Fe to join his doting mother for a holiday. The two men appear to be complete opposites. Guy is serious, hard-working, educated and withdrawn whereas Bruno is unpredictable, spoiled, impulsive and clearly emotionally unstable. Bruno begins a tirade against his father and ends with the question: “Ever feel like murdering somebody?”  While it’s definitely one of those ‘step away from the looney’ moments, Guy allows himself to be bullied and manipulated by Bruno. Trapped in the same railway carriage, the two men strike up a conversation, and Bruno, who’s the pushy type, won’t take no for an answer when Guy refuses to have dinner with him. During dinner and after a few drinks, Bruno confides that he hates his father and wishes he were dead. Bruno also questions Guy about his soured relationship with Miriam. Emboldened with highballs and the thrill of confiding in a total stranger, Bruno goes on to confess more:

“And I did a robbery.” Bruno stared at Guy rigidly. “Good one. Out of an apartment.”

An incredulous smile started on Guy’s lips, though actually he believed Bruno, Bruno could be violent. He could be insane too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy, that he often spoke of to Anne. It tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.

Bruno proceeds to expound on his theories of murder–a subject he’s clearly given a great deal of thought to. Apart from the fact he considers everyone capable of murder, he also admits that he has  “A lot of ideas for perfect murders.” During the course of the evening, Bruno reveals his plan for a perfect murder:

“We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on the train , see and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis!”

In Metcalf, Guy meets Miriam and is appalled by her schemes for reconciliation. Disgusted and depressed, he travels to Mexico to join Anne’s family. A few weeks later, he receives the news that Miriam has been murdered. While he hopes Miriam’s murder is a random act or the result of jealousy from an abandoned lover, Guy’s unease grows. Did Bruno murder Miriam? At first Guy reassures himself that it’s coincidence and that Bruno had nothing to do with Miriam’s murder, but then the letters and the phone calls begin….

While Strangers on a Train is ostensibly a tale of murder, it’s really the story of the relationship between Guy and Bruno. There are definite strains of supressed homosexuality between Bruno and Guy. Bruno wants to shower Guy with gifts and resents Guy’s relationship with Anne, for example. Bruno pursues Guy rather as an ardent, persistent lover might, but the relationship between Bruno and Guy is far more complex.

strangers on a trainHighsmith drops many references to Bruno and Guy being “opposites,” and when they connect they create a toxic, dangerous combination. At the same time, there are instances when Bruno and Guy seem to be halves of the same person, and again the author brings this idea forward in several conversations. As Bruno explains it there are:

“Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.”

As Bruno unleashes the ‘ unseen part’ of Guy, Guy tries to go on living his old life by compartmentalizing one “self:”:

“But there were too many points at which the other self could invade the self he wanted to preserve, and there were too many forms of invasion: certain words, sounds, lights, actions his hands or feet performed, and if he did nothing at all, heard and saw nothing, the shouting of some triumphant inner voice that shocked him and cowed him.”

 A few minutes in Bruno’s company reveal his instability, but Guy is a much darker horse. He works, he has relationships, he has a career, but what lurks under the surface? The first clue that there’s something off with Guy comes in his relationship with Miriam. He’s continually manipulated and pressured by a woman who’s pregnant with someone else’s child. Even his attraction to Anne seems motivated to some degree by her firmness, self-confidence and resolve. Guy’s passiveness covers a type of pathology, and indeed Highsmith uses Guy to extrapolate on this issue making a larger statement about the nature of totalitarianism:

“I was broken down. Bruno broke me down with letters and blackmail and sleeplessness. He drove me insane too. And listen, I believe any man can be broke down. I could break you down. Given the same circumstances, I could break you down and make you kill someone. It might take different methods from the ones used on me, but it could be done. What else do you think keep the totalitarian states going?”

This fascinating character study is far darker, far more complex and far more disturbing than the film version, so it’s one of those familiar instances when the book is much better than the film. Highsmith’s exploration of the relationship between Bruno and Guy raises some intriguing questions about passive behaviour and human motivation that lingered after I turned the final page. The book’s cover says it perfectly–two interchangeable suits. Is Guy so different from Bruno? Are they opposites or is Bruno Guy’s Doppelganger?

“He was like Bruno. Hadn’t he sensed it time and time again, and like a coward never admitted it? Hadn’t he known Bruno was like himself? Or why had he liked Bruno? He loved Bruno. Bruno had prepared every inch of the way for him, and everything would go well because everything always went well for Bruno. The world was geared for people like Bruno.” 


Filed under Highsmith Patricia