Kicking off the month with the film my students will be watching and discussing next week. Directed by the legend Ida Lupino.
I’ve got a crazy little yarn spun over at Near to the Knuckle called ‘Bonnie & Clyde’: two crazy kids meet and their names convince them it’s kismet. Or at least crime —
Check it out along with all the other fine crime fiction they have like Paul D. Brazill’s forthcoming Supernatural Noir. And consider entering the Black Friday Competition! Find out more at Near to the Knuckle.
Continuing the summer obsessions (although being back to campus is the painful way of telling me summer’s over) of Highsmith and Spark, I have two plays coming up: the first is Murray-Smith’s play imagining Patricia Highsmith meeting a mysterious visitor who seems rather Ripley-esque to anyone who’s read her. There was a production in Bath that I couldn’t get to which whetted my appetite and made me wonder why I’d never heard of this though the LA version of the simultaneous debut of the play starred Laura Effing Linney. Wow. I would have loved to see that.
Probably the reason I didn’t hear about it despite having an ear for any mention of Highsmith is that LA critics were mostly ‘meh’. Insane: I swear sometimes I think no one in that city understands humour (which would explain most American ‘comedy’).
This play is crackling dark fun. If you know Highsmith at all, you know how things will turn out but it is great fun seeing just how they get there. Murray-Smith clearly has a great love for Highsmith and her writing (so much so that she hints some of the author’s most repellant personal characteristics might be played up for effect, which I rather doubt but I can see the appeal of thinking so). She captures her, right down to the snails.
Edward Ridgeway (‘Was there ever a more ordinary name?’) arrives in the titular country, emissary from the publisher who wants to squeeze one more Ripley tale our of the irascible and aging writer. Sure, it will make money for them but it will seal her legacy from being ‘…varied.’ Not that she’s dying: ‘Not quite on my deathbed, if that’s what you’re looking for. But let’s say, it’s freshly made up.’
‘Happy people are just people who don’t ask enough questions.’ I don’t know if it’s Highsmith or Murray-Smith but it’s a great line. Likewise, ‘Nice people are simply excellent narrators. They’re fakes.’
Great fun and I hope to see a production some time. What fun this two-hander must be to perform.
See all the FFB gems at Patti’s blog.
Still on a Highsmith kick (when I’m not on the Spark kick) and here’s yet another unsung volume from the prolific author. A Suspension of Mercy is not a title that would fly these days. It has the allusive high-flown style that Highsmith loved in titles; today publishers prefer more direct titles (‘No, Pat. This Sweet Sickness?! People are going to think it’s a romance!’).
Highsmith doesn’t always start with murder but this novel goes a long way without a death: unfortunately for Sydney Bartleby (whose name is a dead giveaway for an unsuccessful writer) people start to assume that he has done away with his wife Alicia. The wonderful Virago cover encapsulates the suspected body disposal.
As Joan Schenkar’s lively introduction spells out, this is one of the three novels she wrote while living in Suffolk (carrying on an affair with a married woman) but the only one set there. Bartleby is a so-far unsuccessful writer married to an equally insufferable spoiled rich girl. They don’t get on and she decides to take a powder and go off to Brighton. Of course he jokes with his co-writer about bumping her off; of course he decides to bury an old carpet in the woods to see what it might be like to bury a body wrapped in a carpet in the woods, which his elderly neighbour misinterprets — and of course, this being Highsmith, things devolve in ways both predictable (duh, Bartleby!) and completely unpredictable from there.
Highsmith gives voice to some familiar writerly fears via Bartleby: Often it occurred to Sydney that he was cursed with his father’s mediocrity, doomed to failure, cursed too with his drive to write something that the world would love and respect and that would ensure his name’s being remembered for a hundred years at least, and hopefully for longer. Every creator has that hope. Sydney is actually on the brink of success when Alicia disappears and everyone begins to suspect him. Like Ripley, for whom imagined things seem more real than real things he’d rather not remember, Sydney acts the part a little too well. As he buries the carpet:
And like a real criminal, he began to feel more sure of himself with the body underground and out of sight…
As an American in Suffolk, he faces the prejudices of the locals as suspicion falls upon him for his missing wife: ‘American are violent. Everyone knows that,’ Mrs Hawkins tells his next door neighbour. There are numerous references to other notorious murders like the Christie case. The book is shot through with grim humour, as when the missing woman’s father scolds his wife for her suspicions, ‘Really, my dear, it’s too much like a detective story.’
Great fun, as always. Highsmith seldom disappoints.
Check out all the other overlooked tomes over at Todd’s blog.
Hit-men, con men, jewel thieves, career criminals, killers, crooks and cannibals. They all congregate between the pages of Paul D. Brazill’s Small Time Crimes – a brutal and blackly comic collection of short stories and flash fiction that views the world at its most askew.
Raymond Chandler advised struggling writers, “When in doubt…have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” and the story would work itself out. I’d say the Brazill corollary is, ‘When in doubt have a man head to a pub.’ While many of his characters try to reform their ways both bibulous and violent, these hard-bitten by life folk generally find they picked the wrong week to give up their vices.
Or is the WC Fields rule? Never give a sucker an even break — and even the most well-intentioned characters here find themselves driven to desperate acts of violence. Most of them don’t have good intentions though: they’ve got axes to grind and long-nursed resentments to avenge and it’s no surprised to find everything going pear-shaped like life had been formed in a pear-shaped mold.
And it’s all hilarious, brutally so. These are not genteel stories. They’re laugh out loud, bitter wincing fun — if you have a black heart and even blacker humour. Some quotes because Mr B is eminently quotable with a boatload of absurdities, musical swipes and clever allusions:
Yeah, and I used to like Benny Liens. He used to be my best mate. My mucker. My partner in crime. Until he screwed my missus, that is. I sharp went off him then, I can tell you. Which is why I killed the fucker.
They used to say he had more tarts than Mr Kipling. He looked as rough as toast now, though. Hair like straw, face like a blackcurrant crumble, wearing a shabby grey shell–suit. The booze and the divorces had certainly taken their toll on George.
“I met him on a Monday and although my heart didn’t stand still, per say, it certainly skipped a beat or two, I can tell you,” said Martyna.
In the beginning was the sound. The light came later. The sound was a horrifying wail that skewered its way deep into my unconscious brain, until I awoke, drowning in sweat, my heart smashing through my ribcage, my head about to burst.
Truth be told, my most vivid and powerful memories of childhood were always in black and white. The monochrome serials that were shown at the Saturday morning Kidz Klub at the local Odeon cinema, and the Hollywood films on afternoon television, when I was throwing a sickie from school. It all seemed so much more vibrant than anything that real life could come up with. As you would expect of someone who grew up living more fully in his imagination than in the day–to–day, adulthood proved to be a series of disappointments and non–events.
“Hope is the real opium of the masses, Peter.”
I could go on and quote the whole damn book, but just buy it for yourself already. Five stars, shining accolades, Ladybird cover, the Kingsley Amis hungover prose award etc etc. Do yourself a favour.
I’m not sure why I always had it stuck in my mind that there were four books in the Ripliad. The fifth and final (thought I have an idea for a sixth, oh estate of esteemed writer) is Ripley Under Water. Released in 1991 more than a decade after The Boy Who Followed Ripley (which deserves a post of its own at some point — so much to dissect there…noting that down for yet another future project I guess: a long consideration of the Ripliad in my abundant free time), the novel has a distinctly different feel to it. No surprise, there. Much had changed in the meantime, especially going back all the way to the original novel in 1955.
Clearly Highsmith loves Ripley just as much thirty five years later. All of her sympathy is with him and concealing his crimes. She allows him to meditate on subjects near to heart (‘Were women masochists? Did that make sense? Child-birth, a stoic tolerance of pain?’). In our world of doxxing and trolling, Ripley Under Water has additional resonances. After making a successful life for himself with all the trappings of wealth he’s always wanted, achieved with really very few murders he thinks, Ripley is suddenly beset by the horror of Americans with wealth, some random facts and a grinding air of self-righteous belligerence.
In short, he has terrible new neighbours. They play loud music, they photograph his house, and they start to blackmail him about his two most important murders. The sanctuary that the little village of Villeperce offers and the fortress of Belle Ombre are besieged by Janice and David Pritchard, who seem to embody every ugly thing about Tom’s homeland — all he has sought to leave behind. His own life is a careful veneer of appearances, so it’s easy to threaten. He cannot comprehend this pair: after they exchange mock blows,
They played little games, Tom saw. And made it up in bed? Unpleasant to contemplate.
Like the toxic fans who stalk celebrities, they pingpong between wanting to befriend him and wanting to expose him. Their insistence on digging up the past unsettles the careful web of lies and deceit that Ripley has built into comfort. They threaten to unravel everything.
Sometimes his imagination was as clear as a remembered experience. And some remembered experiences faded, he supposed, such as that of killing Dickie, Murchison, even the couple of well-fed Mafia members around whose throat he had pulled a garrotte…There was indeed a screen between facts and memory, Tom realised, though he could not have given it a name. He could, of course, he thought a few seconds later, and it was self-preservation.
It’s impossible not to wonder if Highsmith gave herself the same out. She gives him musings that seem to carry the author’s own. Ripley reads Ellman’s excellent biography of Oscar Wilde, which he sums up as,
a man of goodwill, of talent, whose gifts to human pleasure remained considerable, had been attacked and brought low by the vindictiveness of hoi polloi, who had taken sadistic pleasure in watching Oscar brought low.
She then has Tom compare Oscar to Christ, with poetry, then returns to thoughts of his own persecution by the Pritchards (Highsmith has hilariously petty fun with Tom’s wife Héloïse and the other French folks mangling their name). Pritchard has too much money and too much time on his hand and too much bile. He relentlessly hunts the waterways for a body he suspects Tom has discarded.
Perhaps the oddest thing about this book is that Tom, the eternal loner, finally makes use of the friendships he has built as part of his camouflage. Flummoxed by this perverse persecution, he discovers the value of community and almost seems to take an unexpected pleasure in it. Highsmith wraps up this improbable story in a grotesque, bizarre and hilarious way — which I suppose is the only way she could end it. Don’t worry: Tom is still up to his tricks right to the last page.
See all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog.