FFB: Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith

61vh1voxecl
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.

Advertisements

FFB: A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

isbn9780349004570-detailStill 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.

FFB: Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith

41jcpvzb2ml-sx160-sy160I’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.

FFB: The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

9780140101171-uk-300I suppose it’s hard to make a case for it being ‘forgotten’ but considering the 2014 film likewise faded away without much fanfare, perhaps this novel has been overlooked as well. Yet it’s of a piece with all of Highsmith’s work, which of course means it sinks its hooks into you and you keep turning the pages to find out where it could possibly go.

I woke up with Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’ in my head which was my subconscious at work as usual. The love/hate relations of parents and children often figure in her books (no surprise). It’s key to this one and the relationship between the two male characters: the conman Chester MacFarland and the wanna-be poet Rydal Keener. Colette MacFarland is sexual allure and all the problems it causes. She reminds Keener (what a name, eh?) of his adolescent love for his cousin Agnes — a situation that divided his family and set him on the path to reform school, shaming his Harvard professor father.

He notices MacFarland because he strikingly resembles his father, whose funeral he’s recently missed by staying in Athens. Keener helps the pair conceal a body and then they’re friends — maybe. Because maybe Keener’s really after Colette and maybe MacFarland isn’t the father figure he sometimes thinks. Of course Highsmith is delightful in detailing MacFarland’s elaborate Ponsi schemes and his habits to maintain the various faces he shows the world.

When violence comes, like a lot of Highsmith, it’s sudden, brutal and stunning. Things unravel and so quickly, so strangely — the paranoia of the characters is completely understandable. The POV shifts between chapters. Highsmith, as always, masterfully manages to give you all the information from very different slants. It’s genuinely surprising right up to the end when you think, well this is how it has to go. Good stuff.

Check out the other overlooked books at Patti’s blog.

FFB: Rhode Island Red by Charlotte Carter

carter_3_collage_1527285657After reading this fabulous write up on Charlotte Carter by Michael Gonzales, I knew I had to give her a try. Rhode Island Red arrived promptly — one advantage of Carter having a greater following in the UK than in the US, I guess.

41p84k7b6wl-sx160-sy160From the get-go this a book that will drag you along. With chapter titles looted from Thelonius Monk and a voice that’s both knowing, mordant and a little too hopeful, Nanette will keep you reading. I’m one of those readers for whom voice will keep me engaged in a way that clever plotting and intricate detail will not. Carter has a great skill for making the story jump into action right from the start , of filling in the life of the characters without ever giving way to boring exposition. Every one is so vivid through Nanette’s eyes — and so is the NYC that no longer exists, one that was just starting to be gentrified and was still full of life and art.

Nanette is the kind of character that offers richness for crime writing. Insatiably curious, sexy and confident, she’s also smart without always being wise. She has the habit of many clever people of assuming they’ll know when things are getting bad and that they’re always ahead of the game — and suffer doubly when they’re wrong because they ought to have known better. It’s to Carter’s credit that she shows us all the clues but being on Nanette’s side, we might just as well misinterpret them.

The mystery is tied up in cops, criminals and of course music. Nanette is musician, though she doesn’t think much of her abilities it is what she lives for. The uncanny lure of a melody is something she can’t resist. And like a lot of imaginative people, she has a tendency to believe what she wants to believe. Yet there’s a frank evaluation of contemporary racism that permeates the city — especially the police. The matter-of-fact way Nanette negotiates it chills. It’s a simple matter of life and death that she faces daily.

Why no one has optioned this for a film I don’t know. Her pal Aubrey alone should be enough to get some execs in a lather. Nanette is a great character with such a distinctive voice — I’m going to be reading more. I’ll leave you with one quote that took me by surprise, late in the novel. So steeped in jazz is this book, that Nanette pulling out some Satie, told me something — connected to her love for Paris, but also the complexity and wide-ranging curiosity she has. Never assume.

I put on some Erik Satie, for a change of pace from the Billie songs to commit suicide by, a change from the junk-sick Parker ballads and the post desolation Bill Evans stuff. It’s funny how heartbreaking Satie can be, and at the same time soothing, focusing, And then he’ll go off on one of those surrealist tangents, where he sounds like a spoiled brat having a tantrum, or the inside of a mad trolley conductor’s head. He was one weird looking man, Satie. I think I probably would have had a lot of fun with him.

Check out all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog.

FFB: Build My Gallows High

buildmygallowshigh-illusbyharrybarton-1BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH
Geoffrey Homes (1946)

Probably best known as the text for Out of the Past, the classic noir film with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas (and how much better a title is the book than that?), this novel written under a pseudonym by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who also worked on the script for Invasion of the Body Snatchers and dozens of others, has much less cultural currency than the film it led to (I’d forgotten Against All Odds was a remake: I just cringe automatically on hearing in my head the Phil Collins theme song).

It’s a tight little book that feels very much like an adapted screenplay. There’s no wasted words in this slim volume though it fleshes out the backstory of the novel quite a bit more. The action pretty much hurls through the events non-stop. Nonetheless Homes/Mainwaring offers some moments worth lingering over, throwing in scraps of poetry (‘When I am dead and over me bright April shakes down her rain-drenched hair’) and some description that offers a bit of poetry of its own:

Lloyd Eels was a tall man who hadn’t come off the assembly line.Somebody had found some spare parts lying around and had put them together carelessly, not bothering to get the bolts tight so that they seemed almost ready to come apart. He had black, sad eyes and a black mustache like an untrimmed hedge. No amount of combing would help his shock of hair.

‘You’re getting fat,’ Red said. ‘It doesn’t become you.’
‘You come up here to tell me that?’
‘No, I hate to see a man let himself go. They’ll get you back in shape in Alcatraz.’
‘Always the jester,’ Whit said acidly.
‘But the cap is getting pretty shabby and the bells lose their merry tinkle.’

Jim Caldwell’s eyes saw nothing in the drab domestic scene to wonder at, nothing to make him consider even momentarily the thought that people got old and people took each other for granted and presently there was no magic in the world. Jesus, she was beautiful standing under the hard, white light, her head tilted a little, her cheeks flushed, her dark eyes full of stars.

See all the overlooked books over at Patti’s blog.

Occult Crime: The Dain Curse

In Satan’s Sorority, I wanted to explore the idea of crime that uses occult connections even if there’s nothing supernatural happening (it’s open to interpretation, of course — the characters certainly believe something diabolical occurs). Admittedly my forthcoming story Elf Prefix, which again mixes up crime and the occult, is a little more beyond acceptable reality, but I’m interested in the ways the occult has been used to cover up or shield crime.

You don’t think of Dashiell Hammett as a ‘fantasy’ writer, though he did pen a short supernatural tale of a magician and his assistant (‘Magic’). But he was aware of how the occult could be used to con people — he was always interested in how people manipulated one another. After all, many cults are just a way to swindle folks — another big con.

The Dain Curse has a fascinating occult motif in the middle of it. California has long been the hotbed of strange cults so it’s not surprising the Continental Op would run up against one. The Temple of the Holy Grail supposedly resurrects a sort of druidic practice of Arthur’s Britain. While guarding Gabrielle Leggett, inheritor of the curse, the Op discovers her blood-soaked with a dagger in her hands, confessing to murder.

Entering the temple itself through a ‘small iron door’ he sees ‘dim stars in a night sky’ as they walk over ‘a floor of white marble, or pentagonal tiles that imitated white marble…The light glittered and glistened on a wide altar of brilliant white, crystal and silver.’ The victim lay upon the steps pooling blood.

Later as the Op tries to protect Leggett in her room, he’s aware of the persistent smell of dead flowers intensifying. Then he sees something weird:

Not more than three feet away, there in the black room, a pale bright thing like a body, but not like flesh, stood writhing before me. It was tall, yet not so tall as it seemed, because it didn’t stand on the floor, but hovered with its feet a foot or more above the floor. Its feet—it had feet, but I don’t know what their shape was. They had no shape, just as the thing’s legs and torso, arms, and hands, head and face, had no shape, no fixed form. They writhed, swelling and contracting, stretching and shrinking, not greatly, but without pause.

The Op figures things out eventually–and as you might suspect, the cause of the seemingly supernatural vision has a lot to do with the strange smell and suggestibility, but it’s worthwhile thinking about how even the hard-nosed Op can be thrown off kilter by what appears to be inexplicable. You might breathe a sign of relief when the Scooby-Do ending gets revealed, but for a time even the hard-boiled reader might be willing to suspend disbelief for a time.

See all the overlooked books at Patti Abbott’s blog.