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: People Who Knock on the Door by Patricia Highsmith

9780349004976-usI started reading this on a transatlantic flight thinking I would be able to nod off get a little sleep. But it’s Highsmith, so of course I finally had to force myself to close the book so I could sleep a little. As Sarah Hilary’s astute introduction spells it out, ‘Her great skill was to make us, dear readers, complicit….Highsmith, let’s face it, is addictive.’

I’m not sure there’s a ‘typical’ Highsmith, but this one’s definitely an outlier. For one thing the protagonist is a high school kid. Written in the midst of the rise of the so-called Moral Majority in the Reagan years, her contempt is palpable for the grubby little hypocrites who trumpet ‘morality’ whilst using religion as a club to batter down any dissent.

But it doesn’t at once seem like a ‘crime’ novel. After a while I stopped waiting for something ‘criminal’ to happen and just settled in to the life of Arthur Alderman (oh, what a name) in a seemingly idyllic Midwestern town where everyone is a specifically odd reality and the sinister march of darkness creeps through the niceness everyone desperately struggles to maintain.

That unease: that’s Highsmith. That’s the art I struggle to put a finger on. How easily, how pervasively she develops it. I need to study her more closely. It feels effortless, but it’s got to be so carefully built. Into the maelstrom of religious tension, abortion controversies, money matters and always intimations of ‘morality’ that slowly drive a wedge into the ‘perfect’ family.

You always knew they were not perfect. But when it all explodes, it’s still a shock.

Her racism is much more on show here. Highsmith makes it a part of the small town outlook, a nodding us vs them mentality. The mindset that Arthur struggles against, both with his father’s closing mind after his ‘born again’ moment and with the ‘why not just settle’ message he gets from almost everyone else.

He comes to a conclusion, a philosophy that seems to finally bring him peace:

Take life as it comes. Enjoy and be grateful. Not grateful to God, but to luck and chance. Tread carefully, speak carefully, hang onto what you’ve got. Be polite to what you’ve got.

Of course that’s when, as they say, all hell breaks loose. Of course, this is Highsmith country.

Discover your new reads at Patti’s round up of overlooked tomes.


FFB: Highsmith – A Romance of the 1950s

Marijane Meaker’s memoir of her romance with Patricia Highsmith reads like one of her novels. Racy, pacy, fun – with characters larger than life. At times it’s hard to remember they’re real people. While Joan Schenkar’s fat biography covers a whole lot more, Meaker’s book offers the first hand insight and anecdotes that makes it sing.

Not that she spares herself: who but a real neurotic could make a go of things with the singular Highsmith? At times Meaker almost outpaces Ripley’s creator in the crazy stakes: obsessing madly and far too quick to start snooping and drawing wild assumptions. She admits that before they even met ‘Pat had become my idol’ so she worked up the courage to go across the bar and introduce herself to the woman who ‘looked like a combination of Prince Valiant and Rudolph Nureyev.’

Meaker doesn’t mention that she’s living with someone and quickly the two become mutually infatuated, soon living a folie à deux like…well, like two characters in a Highsmith novel. It’s clear Meaker is as much enamoured of the writer as the woman. She knows the restaurant where O. Henry wrote his stories, envies Highsmith’s literary friends, stalks some of her exes, and longs to write a hardcover book to get a little more literary credit. ‘It didn’t occur to me that I would lose Kit,’ Meaker writes, ‘I would lie, talk myself out of blame, something.’

But Highsmith was so open about her affection, it wasn’t something that could be hidden long — especially with all the drinking. While Pat cooked, Meaker would make her a “cooking drink” but mentions she also had her “dressing drinks” and “argument drinks” and “sleepless night drinks” as well. The drinking didn’t help. Nor did the fact that Meaker in her own words ‘let it all hang out’ which Highsmith found wounding at times.

Far too soon they decided not only to move in together, but to do so out in the wilds of the Pennsylvania countryside. There were the usual negotiations of living together with the added strangeness of country life after Manhattan’s swirl. They find ways to order their very different work habits but there are lots of little things:

‘I think it was also why she often left things unsaid: She didn’t want her mind cluttered with bad feelings. She knew anything she brought up…would be endlessly defended by me, with my working it around somehow so that Pat was to blame for whatever we were discussing. She would not have made a good debater. I was a champion.’

Or when discussing why only Highsmith’s cat Spider and not Meaker’s five brought rabbit carcasses to the door: ‘”Because Spider’s a natural killer. He’s a Highsmith.” It was supposed to be a joke.’ Ouch!

Not that Pat was any picnic: her drinking and her racism (and anti-Semitism seemed to take off to higher levels, slowly at first but then sharply as she seemed to feel trapped. The images of her sneering at Lorraine Hansberry and walking around the house trimming the plants with a switchblade while she grumbled. Meaker refuses to consider traveling abroad, but complains that ‘Pat always made me feel that I was holding her back.’

They almost break up several times, then cancel even as the movers fill the vans (rather comically, they have to keep looking for movers ever further away because they cannot face the same ones for yet another aborted move). Almost 30 years later they get together for a short visit. Highsmith has ossified in both her drinking and her misanthropy to a level that shocks Meaker despite what she’d heard.

This is a fun and interesting read, if more than a little cringe inducing at times because Meaker really does let it all hang out and two neurotic creators have some very creative madness. Oh, I didn’t even mention the letters from Highsmith’s mother — wow.  Fascinating!

Read all the overlooked gems at Patti’s blog.

FFB: Carol by Patricia Highsmith

Carol (or The Price of Salt)
Patricia Highsmith

‘I like to avoid labels. It’s American publishers who like them.’
~ from the afterword

I finally got around to reading this book originally published pseudonymously by Highsmith. Because I read the Bloomsbury edition it’s called Carol instead of the original title, but I wanted to be sure to read it before I got to see the film. Even if you haven’t read it you’ve probably heard the one important thing is that unlike every other exploitative and/or heartfelt lesbian novel at the time, it has a happy ending. But this is Highsmith, so she keeps you wondering until the last few pages.

“The novel of a love society forbids” offers a lot of classic Highsmith: there’s an uneasy undercurrent of suspense that keeps you dreading the worst. The naive Therese seems destined to make a mess of everything and the cool sophistication of Carol almost makes you think she’ll turn out to be a killer or a psychopath, particularly when the two women discover a private investigator is tailing them.

Superb, surprising and pure Highsmith.

Some quotes:

It was the dress of queens in fairy tales, of a red deeper than blood…she wished she could kiss the person in the mirror and make her come to life, yet she stood perfectly still, like a painted portrait.

She looked at Richard’s face in the flare of his match. The smooth slab of his forehead overhung his narrow eyes, strong looking as a whale’s front, she thought, strong enough to batter something in…she saw his eyes open like unexpected spot of blue sky in the darkness.

The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo…Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill.

How was it possible to be afraid and in love, Therese thought. The two things did not go together.

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

Readings for the Noir(ish) Course

I’m teaching our crime fiction course in the spring, which hasn’t been taught in a while. This is a reading not a writing course. I’m still deciding on the three films I can squeeze in (I’ve yet to write up the syllabus) but I’ve had to fix the readings because the students need to order them soon. In other words, I’m not looking for a debate about the choices made. The clown is down.

My own peculiar tastes show here; I envision my role as ‘gateway drug’ to more of the dark stuff. Also, I plan to persuade some of pals to chat to the class, either in person or via tech (cough, looking in your direction!). I balk at having all 20th century readings, and Poe is a necessary place to kick off the idea of ‘detective fiction’ in English language literature, though I quickly focus on that period.

Films? At the moment it’s Double Indemnity, The Third Man and Night of the Hunter, but I’ve not made my mind up. I have also considered choosing films of the books to compare and contrast, however at the moment I’m leaning away from that, tempting though it may be. Maybe Mildred Pierce to slip in Cain after all or something with Ida Lupino — I have to decide soon. It’s tough to choose. So here’s the choices if you want to read along —

Edgar Poe: The Purloined Letter (available online for FREE)

Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Blank Wall

Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place

Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train

Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Me

Chester Himes: Cotton Comes to Harlem

Another class would be another set of choices: I dropped Margaret Millar and James M. Cain when I knew I was overloading the reading. There’s just too much great stuff. I’d love to do a Brit Grit or international noir course. Maybe soon.

Review: Patricia Highsmith’s A Dog’s Ransom

A Dog’s Ransom
Patricia Highsmith

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.