Highsmith’s Ripley novels have a high profile which unfairly casts a shadow over some of her other works. A Dog’s Ransom is a peculiar gem in the same vein of sharply misanthropic works that swell her bibliography. The New York of this novel isn’t just gritty: it reeks.
The story begins with the top of the food chain: Edward Reynolds, his wife Greta and their little French poodle Lisa. Highsmith draws a portrait of the gentlemanly big house editor so specifically, you suspect she sketched him from a life model. They’ve just received another poison pen letter beginning, “I SUPPOSE YOU ARE PRETTY PLEASED WITH YOURSELF?” and sneering at their “fancy apartment” and “snob dog.” Greta wants to call the cops, but Ed would prefer not to think about things and sips his cocktail instead.
That overplays the class elements a bit, but that’s a key thread to the narrative: the “superior” life of Ed and Greta sparks ne’er –do-well Rowajinski’s loathing. Not that there are many he doesn’t hate; he’s got a busy little schedule of anonymous vitriol to spread in his poorly spelled missives. But it’s not enough: Rowajinski decides to kidnap and ransom Lisa. Highsmith sketches this lowlife character with great zeal. He nearly oozes off the page.
The kidnapping brings would be-social climber cop Clarence Duhamell into the orbit of these folks, whom he might not ever have met. He yearns for the better life he sees in Ed and Greta’s world. His impatience with the system and palpable loathing of Rowajinski short circuit his efforts to find justice, and his fellow police officers make things worse. Their contempt of this college boy cop shows in myriad ways, from deliberately mispronouncing his name to getting their own back on him when Rowajinski counter-accuses him of taking a bribe. The latter’s glee when he burns $500 to make sure it’s unaccountable hits like a punch in the gut.
You’ll need a unicorn chaser after this novel; it’s Highsmith at her Dostoyevskian best. The casual racism of the 1972 novel may well make folks wince, too. On the plus side, Clare’s hippie chick girl friend Marylyn provides a fascinating portrait of a woman of her times and some much needed comic relief, too. Right up to the end, you keep wondering just how things will turn out; good stuff.
See the roundup of overlooked books at Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog.