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.