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.

News: Fahrenheit 13

small_f13_logoGreat news from Chris Black: the Thirteeners join up with Fahrenheit Press!

So, here I am, the new head of a new imprint and it’s important to me that Fahrenheit 13 has a distinctive feel. So if Fahrenheit are the punk publishers of crime fiction, where does that leave Fahrenheit 13?

Simple: Fahrenheit only break the rules. Fahrenheit 13 burns the rule book and buries it out in the desert.

Look for Satan’s Sorority to bounce back even bigger than before!

 

Film Review: Gone Girl

I wanted to make sure I saw this before NoirCon as people are bound to be talking about it. I’m glad I did, as I really enjoyed it. Though it may well fit under Anne Billson’s umbrella of preposterous thrillers, I didn’t mind and I am eager to read the book now. First can I say what a joy it is to see a film so full of women! Carrie Coon is terrific as the Nick’s twin sister, Kim Dickens is just amazing as the dry detective investigating the case, Casey Wilson, Missy Pyle — and where did Lola Kirke come from? Wow, she was great in a small role. Unexpected Sela Ward klaxon! Rosamund Pike finally gets a role that allows her to show her chops and not just stand around looking beautiful. Affleck surprisingly good; as my friend Maryann said, his blandness works particularly well for the role.

I can’t be sure exactly when it popped into my head but Larkin was there:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

A lot has been made about this film as a reflection of our paranoia about relationships in the modern world, but it isn’t just about romantic relationships. Nick and Amy never deal with the baggage they carry even though they recognise its weight. As Larkin’s poem also reminds us, “But they were fucked up in their turn/ By fools in old-style hats and coats”. How happy we are in this life depends a great deal on how much we’re able to chuck that baggage away.

Nick and Amy embrace it.

I don’t want to give too much away; I knew some of the twists going in, but fortunately not all. This isn’t a gimmick film that relies on twists to work; I look forward to watching it again and watching the twists come. I don’t tend to like Fincher all that much, his visual slickness skates over too much, but it fit the subject matter perfectly. This is a precisely contemporary film because it’s all about our consciousness of playing ourselves in public — online or in security cameras. As Vonnegut wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Because sometimes the façade can be deadly.

Plus: ginger cat FTW!