The Black House

Pat had a ho-hum period in the 80s that explains why this 1981 collection of stories is sleep inducing. No story stands out as worthy of remembering, but I’m still committed to working my way through her entire oeuvre. She’s best when she drips the details of everyday life in with an increasing sense of suspense, and that is sorely lacking from this collection. The closest you get is in the first story where a cat finds a severed hand and the finder calls his neighbor to let him know, only to have the neighbor come over to admit to killing his gardener for flirting with his wife. I guess the other story that was amusing was the couple who “adopt” an older couple from the nursing home to let them live their glory days in style. The old folks take over, TV blaring, demanding trays of food to be sent up, wetting their bed deliberately.

Found in the Street

Ugh, I finally found a Pat Highsmith book that was disappointing. Actually, there are a few that I couldn’t even continue reading (post to come later), but this one held out a tinge of promise so I plowed through. The one-star review on AMZN echoes my feeling: “I nearly always love the work of Patricia Highsmith so this was a real disappointment.”

I wasn’t quite sure who I was supposed to be rooting for, or even who the anti-hero was. You’ve got the freelance journalist who’s also an artist who loses his wallet, found by weirdo stalker guy who insists that the young woman working at the coffee shop is also a prostitute (she’s not). Ultimately, she’s killed by the jealous ex-lover of her own ex-girlfriend. It’s meandering and wheezy and avoidable.

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

The only non-fiction I’ve gobbled up by Pat so far is this useful book on writing with tips that stretch beyond the “suspense” label. She relies on her decades of successfully publishing books and stories and reveals her process, unbuttoning the kimono.

“I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me. Therefore, I don’t dislike this boredom which encroaches on me every now and then, and I even try to create it by routine.” She also admits to enjoying conversations with people that others find dull: “there are some people, often most unlikely people—dull-witted, lazy, mediocre in every way—who are for some inexplicable reason stimulating to the imagination. I have known many such people. I like to see and talk to them now and then, if I can.”

In her twenties, she worked during the day and would come home, nap at 6pm, then bathe and change clothes, getting up for her second job which was to write her own work. “This gave me an illusion of two days in one and made me as fresh for the evening as I could be.”

To combat fatigue, she advocates for taking a trip, even a short, cheap trip to change the scene. “If you can’t take a trip, take a walk.” Lack of ideas might also be due to the people you’re around.

Technical specifics get into outlining chapters, always with the question in mind about how this chapter advances the story. List the specific points you want to cover in each chapter and have that beside you as you write it.

She sneers at people who imitate current trends that are selling: “A writer can be assured of a good living by imitating current trends and by being logical and pedestrian, because such imitations sell and do not take too much out of a writer in an emotional sense.”

Pat cries foul of those writers who love to let their characters take on a life of their own: “I do not subscribe to the belief that having a vigorous character who acts for himself is always good. After all, you are the boss, and you don’t want your characters running around all over the place or possibly standing still, no matter how strong they may be.”

Dialogue can be summed up where not important to increase the dramatic effect. Instead of tediously listing out the characters’ lines, “Howard refused to budge, though she argued with him for a full half hour.”

As usual, the best writing advice is simply to do it, and to do it often. She is speaking directly to me here:

One need not be a monster, or feel like one, to demand two or three hours absolute privacy here and there. This schedule should become a habit, and the habit, like writing itself, a way of life. It should become a necessity; then one can and will always work. It is possible to think like a writer all one’s life, to want to be a writer, yet to write seldom, out of laziness or lack of habit. Such a person may write passably well when he writes—such people are known as great letter writers—and may even sell a few things, but that is doubtful. Writing is a craft and needs constant practice.

Throughout, she dissects her successful books and her failures. This book is a must-read for any Highsmith fan to get her take on her own work. When discussing Strangers on a Train, she says “It is a wonder this simple idea [strangers exchanging murders] is not used more often in real life, and perhaps it is, since it is said that only eleven percent of the murders committed are ever solved.”

Deep Water

Pat’s 1957 Deep Water is light on suspense compared to her other work. This is part of its beauty, the mundane details building to an unexpected event. In this book, Vic is the “hero,” the psychopath husband who plays it all cool. His wife Melinda ignores their daughter Trixie (so Vic ups his attention to her) and has several open affairs with other men. Vic moves to the garage where he tends to his snails and study of Italian. One of Melinda’s lovers is murdered in NYC and Vic begins to bandy about the story that he killed him to scare off other lovers. This works, until the real murderer is found. But the seed is planted, and off Vic goes. First he drowns the piano player, Charles, in a neighbor’s pool at a party where no one else is around. Then a detective comes sniffing around, disguised as a psychiatrist. Melinda trumpets his killing Charles around town, everyone averts their eyes and most believe Vic didn’t do it. Nothing comes of it except Melinda’s close alliance to Don Wilson, a man who also hates Vic. Along comes another conquest, Cameron, and after much in-your-face flirtation, Melinda decides to take Vic up on his offer of divorce with a generous alimony settlement (he has a private income from his family and runs a publishing business mostly for kicks). Chance allows Vic to lure Cameron to the quarry where he hits him with a rock and weighs him down to drop to the bottom of the water. Eventually he’s caught back at the scene and in the final pages attempts(?) to kill Melinda before he’s nabbed by the police.

The snail-watcher, and other stories

Pat’s first collection of short stories came out in 1970 and her obsession with snails is clear from the eponymous story. A man grows interested in snails when he sees them mating before they’re about to be cooked for dinner, rescues them, turns his study into a snail habitat, lets them run wild, they take over and eventually crush him to death. Snails pop up again in The Quest for “Blank Claveringi,” a story about a man bent on discovering a new snail species who sets out to investigate the man-eating 25-foot snails he’s read about. (He dies, eaten by snails). The Terrapin follows the anguish of a son realizing that his mother has brought a turtle home to eat, not as his pet. That night he cuts her up like he witnessed her attack on the terrapin. A woman attempts to kill her husband with chloroform in When the Fleet was in at Mobile. The Cries of Love has two old ladies who wreak havoc on each others’ lives, Hattie snipping Alice’s nice new cardigan into shreds, Alice chopping off one of Hattie’s braids while she slept. They continue to live together, plotting slow revenge. In The Heroine, an insane woman comes to be the nurse of two rich kids, ripping her pay into bits, setting the house on fire so she can be of use. This collection was published as Eleven in the UK.

The Cry of the Owl

This 1962 gem from Pat looks like a practice run for her more perfectly formed A Suspension of Mercy (1965) wherein one of the characters disappears so as to bring suspicion of murder onto another character. The Cry of the Owl centers around Robert, a recently divorced draftsman who works at an aeronautics company and who likes to go peeping at night. He prowls up to Jenny’s isolated home and enjoys watching her in the kitchen, happy for her when he sees her making dinner for her and her boyfriend, Greg. A few errant noises makes Jenny spooked about his sneaking around outside, and eventually she catches him. Surprise: she’s not freaked out, but befriends him and finds their meet cute to be fate. Soon she’s abandoned Greg, who turns savage and stalks Jenny, tries to run Robert off the road, engages in a fight that leaves Greg knocked out by the river’s edge and Robert pulls Greg out so he doesn’t drown. But Greg disappears, heads to NYC and gets support from Robert’s psychotic ex-wife Nickie. Robert tries to track him down in a NYC hotel but fails. The local police suspect him of murder and eventually find a body in the river, unfortunately missing the part of teeth that the dentist could have matched with his records for Greg. Fast forward, Greg comes out of hiding to shoot at Robert, improbably, and eventually kills the doctor who was tending Robert’s gunshot wounds. Greg’s out on bail and Nickie comes to visit him, then they head over to Robert’s to terrorize him a bit more (Jenny has killed herself by now). In a final knife fight, Greg swipes at Robert but kills Nickie, Robert looks at the knife and realizes he has to call the police.

This Sweet Sickness

Maybe I’m overdosing on Highsmith because she’s the perfect complement to the insanity of today’s world. So here’s another, this not among her worst or her best; pub’d in 1960, bouncing back from her unreadable 1958 book set in Mexico.

The “hero,” David Kelsey, is an absolute nut, living a splintered life in a boardinghouse during the week and then scampering off on weekends to a house he bought where he lives a fantasy life with the woman he loved but who married someone else. His boardinghouse and work think he spends weekends with his dying mother in a nursing home, but she’s been dead fourteen years. David buys the house under a fake name, William Neumeister, and lives an entirely different life as Bill, smoking and drinking cocktails while he pretends that Annabelle lives with him. David continues to write to Annabelle, insisting that she spend a few days leading up to Christmas with him in NYC, calling her house, and generally terrorizing her. He shows up one day and meets the husband, insults him, and leaves. The continued behavior drives Gerald, the husband, to the brink of wanting to kill David, and he shows up at the boardinghouse with a gun. David’s neighbor Effie gives Gerald the location of the house that David spends the weekends at, and Gerald arrives, brandishing the gun, gets into a scuffle, is shoved by David, clonks his head, and dies. David/Bill drives the body to the police and gives a full report acting as William Neumeister, then proceeds to sell his house, quit his job, get another job and move to a different town. Effie’s in love with David and keeps his secret, but as David becomes more and more unhinged (Annabelle marries a different man after Gerald’s death), Effie & his friend Wes visit and David accidentally kills her. The last pages are when he’s on the lam in NYC, acting weird as Bill, pretending he and Annabelle are on their honeymoon, ordering 2 dinners with 2 drinks, then showing up at an old college buddy’s apartment who then sends his wife out for the police. He ends up jumping from their apartment, but does he hit the police net or die?

Small G: A Summer Idyll

Pat’s U.S. publishers rejected her last work a few months before her death; I suppose the in-your-face gayness was too much for them? The story follows an atypical trajectory for Highsmith, starting with the brutal murder of Peter, a young homosexual, then meandering through the lives of various other Zurich residents related to Peter before ending on a happy note with Peter’s lover having moved on, and happy endings all around. Luisa is a teenager who fell in love with Peter to his dismay, and is eased in his death by Rickie, Peter’s much older boyfriend. She’s an apprentice seamstress kept under virtual lock and key by her mistress, Renate, who vocally abuses gays at the local watering hole, the Small g, AKA Jakob’s (small g for gay). Teddie is a young man who wanders in one night, Rickie falls for him but he’s straight and lusts after Luisa who ends up dating both Teddie (a man) and Dorrie (a woman). Renate is killed after slipping on the stairs running after Dorrie and Luisa inherits her whole estate, including the dress shop. Very odd for Highsmith, the last word is “happy.” Did she realize that would be ultimately her final printed word? Would she have wanted that? Hmm.

Strangers on a Train

Pat’s first book, pub’d 1950 when she was 29 and obviously made famous by Hitchcock’s picking it up for a film (Raymond Chandler worked on the adaptation before he got fired and said the plot drove him “crazy”). The film streamlines and simplifies, as it always does. In the book, Guy breaks down and commits the murder of Bruno’s dad after months of torment and letters and harassment by Bruno after he offs Miriam. Bruno still can’t let well enough alone and insinuates himself into Guy and Anne’s life, eventually ending up on a boat with them that he drunkenly falls from, drowning. Guy is wracked with guilt, tracks down Miriam’s old boyfriend and confesses, of course to find Bruno’s private detective outside the door having heard it all. Most interesting to know about Pat’s alcoholism while reading this, as Bruno is constantly sloshed, saying things like the best way to experience the world is while drunk.

The Two Faces of January

I promise, I’m getting close to the end of my Pat Highsmith list. This one was from her peak period of writing in the 1960s (1964) and a treat for the eyes, although sloppy in a couple of places. Colette and Chester are an American couple in Greece fleeing Chester’s bad business deals back in the States by heading to Europe in the winter. They come across Rydal, another American, who has been struck by Chester’s similarity to his dead father. Rydal helps Chester dispose of the body of a Greek policeman who’s come sniffing around about the fraud, accidentally killed. Then Rydal helps him get fake passports, and decides to travel with them to Crete where he falls in love with Colette and she with him. Chester tries to kill Rydal at Knossos, but ends up dropping a heavy stone on his wife instead, crushing her. Then the inevitable fleeing the country, attempting to pin the blame on Rydal, etc. etc.

The Blunderer

More murder from Pat Highsmith, this one an early gem from 1954. She begins with a gruesome killing, a man sets his alibi by going to a movie and making sure to say hello to someone, then exiting the theater to follow the bus his wife is on, viciously killing her at the rest stop. A blurb about the murder comes out in the paper and is collected by Walter, a lawyer who writes essays about human relationships for fun. Later, he thinks about doing just that (killing his wife at a rest stop) but she ends up suiciding from a cliff at the rest stop instead, casting suspicion onto him. The original murderer starts to face intense scrutiny, ends up killing Walter and being taken into custody for the two murders. Not great, but not terrible.

A Suspension of Mercy

One of Pat’s best books, pub’d in 1965 when she was in her full powers and had yet to slide into decline. It’s a story about a fiction writer (Sydney Bartleby) who hates his wife Alicia and keeps thinking about ways he would murder her. She’s an artist and takes time away from him, ostensibly to paint but in reality it’s just to get away from him. After a few days, she returns, and then after a major fight departs again, this time for a much longer time. Sydney is pleased to not have her around and begins producing great crime plots that he collaborates on with his pal Alex for television treatment. The day after Alicia leaves on her longer stay, Syd thinks he’d like to see what it’s like to raise suspicion that he’s murdered her, so early one morning carries a rolled up carpet that he goes and buries four feet underground. Alicia has actually flown into the arms of another man, Edward Tilbury, and in various disguises she stays away, raising alarm and suspicion when she doesn’t cash her monthly trust fund check. Syd jokes with Alex that he pushed her down the stairs and buried the body in a carpet, and the police come sniffing around. Eventually the carpet gets dug up, no body. Syd thinks, the body is deeper in the hole, keep digging, but there is no body because Alicia is still alive and in hiding. Eventually Syd’s publishing prospects are held up by people suspecting that he did in his wife, so he spies on her, discovers the affair, and telegrams her to return to her parents. Alicia panics, gets drunk, chases after Edward, and falls or is pushed off a cliff. Syd’s off the hook for her murder, but he’s not satisfied, he goes to Tilbury’s flat and forces him to eat sleeping pills which later kill him.

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

Exhausting. I’ve been wrestling with this book for a couple of weeks now and would have given up except the subject matter is too compelling. Because I’m high on Highsmith I suffered through the terribly constructed, bloated biography that Schenkar put together. That may be harsh criticism, but surely there was a way to chop the 600 pages into something more manageable. And nothing is more deflating than struggling through hundreds of pages of Pat’s tempestuous affairs with ladies (and a few men), looking up to see that you are in Part 14 of the section, Les Girls. I almost cried when I realized how much she’d packed into those pages. Did every single detail of every single affair she had need to be included? Ye gods. (Pat was a busy woman, frequently sleeping with several women at the same time, preferring love triangles or affairs with married women so there was no possibility of it continuing).

The most interesting intel I got from this was Pat’s secret life as a comic strip writer. During the 1940s she was the “most consistently employed female scriptwriter in the Golden Age of American Comics,” and she continued to write them freelance while in Europe trying to make ends meet. Comics she wrote for include: Black Terror, Pyroman, Fighting Yank, The Destroyer, Sergeant Bill King, Jap Buster Johnson, The Human Torch, Crisco and Jasper, Real Life Comics, Spy Smasher, Captain Midnight, Golden Arrow. She hid this work from everyone, ashamed of it, but admitted later that it helped her tremendously in having to crank out huge quantities of pages around tight plot lines. This is also where she picked up the dual imagery she clung to in her own work, the alter-ego.  The biographer goes on an interesting tangent about that era of comics and includes Gertrude Stein’s impression that Americans “do the best designing and use the best material in the cheapest thing.” Apparently Stein had Krazy Kat and The Katzenjammer Kids strips mailed to her in Paris, sharing them with equally obsessed comics fan Picasso.

As a girl, Pat read obsessively and used books as “drugs”—sounds familiar—and later in life read the dictionary for half an hour each night (“As a novelist, I can say the dictionary is the most entertaining book I have ever read”). She kept snails as pets and would unleash them onto the dinner table to freak people out.

An alcoholic, she shunned food and actually marked a line across the bottle for each day’s rations of booze (beer and gin or vodka in the morning, scotch for the remainder of the day). The author, Schenkar, claims: “Coffee, scientists now tell us gravely, helps to protect the livers of heavy drinkers from cirrhosis,” meaning that Pat was preserving herself by being a huge coffee drinker along with consuming astounding amounts of booze. She was also known to be furious if she was at a party that ran out of alcohol.

She was obviously deeply into murder, and her last writer’s diary calculates that “one blow in anger [would] kill, probably, a child from aged two to eight. Those over eight would take two blows to kill.” What circumstances would drive her to this frenzy? “One situation—maybe one alone—could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.” Amen, sister. Later she says “Families are nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live with one.” Pat had a ridiculously complicated and fraught relationship with her mother Mary, having to cut off contact completely in later years after one too many screaming matches.

A misanthrope, she preserved herself by “avoiding meeting people, encountering them on my walks, greeting even the most pleasant acquaintances by crossing the street when I see them far ahead of me on the sidewalk… I feel that I am never quite myself with others.” Another great quote: “I can easily bear cold, loneliness, hunger and toothache, but I cannot bear noise, heat, interruptions, or other people.”

She met Carson McCullers (who told Pat all afternoon that she had a “very good figure”). She also met Shirley Jackson who advised her about the importance of finding a literary agent. Jane Bowles told her “Don’t plan. It always works better to write first, and then rewrite.”

 

A Dog’s Ransom

Back on the Highsmith horse with this 1972 story about a crazy NYC neighbor who delights in sending poison pen letters finally kidnapping a dog and sending a $1000 ransom request. The Reynolds are the victims, and they’ve received three other nasty letters before the ransom note. Instead of going to the police, they tie up a bag of $1,000 and hope for the best. The money is taken but no dog, since it was killed the night it was stolen by the limping Rowajinski, disabled from a construction accident that has him on permanent disability. Now the Reynolds head to the police, which is where Clarence, the bright-eyed college educated cop, overhears their story and follows up on it of his own initiative. He tracks Rowajinski down, gets a confession, then oddly leaves him to go confer with the Reynolds about next steps (Rowajinski says the dog is still alive but at his sister’s house and will be killed if anything happens to him). While Clarence is gone, R’s landlady kicks him out and he recedes to a hotel in the Village. He gets another $1000 from the Reynolds and proceeds to burn half of it so he can say that Clarence took it as a bribe. Mixed up in all this is Marylyn, Clarence’s reluctant girlfriend who he’s asked multiple times to marry him. R gets caught by one of the other officers in Clarence’s unit and immediately accuses him of the $500 bribe, but ends up in Bellevue for a few days. After he’s released, he begins to haunt Marylyn, dropping notes and threats to her that make her fed up with Clarence who ultimately chases R down one night and beats him to death with his gun.

He confesses to Marylyn and the Reynolds, who have nothing but sympathy for him, but holds up under intense questioning by the police. In the end, it’s the “wop cop” that was harassing Marylyn who shows up and shoots Clarence after he refused to confess. Bizarre tale.

Mermaids on the Golf Course

Will I ever find a Patricia Highsmith book that I don’t enjoy? Unlikely. This is another collection of short stories decidedly less murderous and creepy than the last batch. Perhaps she mellowed as she aged, this one coming out in 1985. The stories are mostly of deteriorating relationships plus death this time.

Mermaids on the Golf Course is about a man recovering from brain injury from hurling his body in front of the President who was shot at. He makes inappropriate comments and jokes and leers at one woman journalist who he asks for photos of, to the dismay of his wife.

The Button follows a man who is pissed that his son has Down’s Syndrome, but instead of harming his son, he goes out and strangles a random stranger, saving the button on his coat for a souvenir.

Where the Action is – a photographer at a small town newspaper captures a photo of a woman with her parents immediately after she has been attacked, raped. His reputation skyrockets while hers diminishes, and many people don’t believe she was attacked.

Chris’s Last Party – an aging Broadway actor joins a group of friends around their benefactor Chris’s deathbed and decides to kill himself. He survives, finds that Chris has left his house to him.

A Clock Ticks at Christmas – a rich woman gives a street urchin some change, then invites him up to her apartment, and things start to go missing. She buys him some shoes, he steals a clock that has sentimental value to her husband. The couple divorces a few months after Xmas.

A shot from nowhere – an artist witnesses a murder in Mexico but, when he demands that the police be called, is hauled away as the prime suspect. Eventually he’s released, thrown across the border, goes back to NYC and paints pictures of the dead boy.

The Stuff of Madness – a man becomes upset when he finds that his wife is being interviewed about her odd habit of displaying all her dead pets in the garden, post-taxidermy. He wishes he had left her for the other woman he was having an affair with, then goes off to find a mannequin and dresses it up as the other woman, stages it in the garden. The wife sees it while giving a tour to the journalist and photographer, has a stroke, recovers. The man kills himself with his head laying in the lap of the mannequin.

Not in this Life, maybe the next – a woman sees a goblin that only she can see, has it help out with yard chores. Her friend insists that she see an eye doctor, but instead she kills herself.

I am not as efficient as other people – A man lacking handyman skills becomes enraged by his capable neighbors’ home improvements. He attempts to pull his own house down around him, ends up in the hospital.

The Cruelest Month – a woman’s main enjoyment in life is in corresponding with famous authors. When she invades one of their privacy by trespassing in search of an autograph, she’s devastated to see that he was repulsed by her, so she throws herself in front of a taxi becoming hideously scarred.

The Romantic – a woman spends her youth nursing her mother through the final stages of cancer, then decides she enjoys her pretend dates more than the real dates she goes on.