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.

 

Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

A collection of creepy short stories published in 1979 by the reigning champ of psychological tales, Patricia Highsmith. I couldn’t resist dipping back into her oeuvre and this collection did not disappoint. A tremendous story starts us off, The Man Who Wrote Books In His Head, a concept I might try getting away with. Once Cheever figures out the complete plot and flushes out all the pages in his mind, he sits down to write it:

 

He procrastinated, and lit another pipe. He had put a sheet of paper in the typewriter, but this was the title page, and as yet he had written nothing. Suddenly, at 10.15 a.m., he was award of boredom – oppressive, paralysing boredom. He knew the book, it was in his mind entirely, and in fact, why write it?

The thought of hammering away at the keys for the next many weeks, putting words he already knew onto two hundred and ninety-two pages (so Cheever estimated) dismayed him. He fell onto the green sofa and slept until 11. He awakened refreshed and with a changed outlook: the book was done, after all, not only done but polished. Why not go on to something else?

And so he begins to “write” other books in his head. The second story, Network, is the other one in the collection that doesn’t involve something devious and criminal. It’s the story of a woman, Fran, who’s on disability leave from her job and who becomes the spoke of a network of friends all calling to give and take news of each other. They help a young man get started in the city, a grand-nephew of one of their own, and in the end he offers Fran flowers.

The other tales involve death, murder, stabbings, the usual Highsmith fare. A woman kills an intruder, another woman witnesses her toddler’s drowning in a pool in the backyard before joining him, a delivery boy executes a triple murder in a wax museum but no one believes that he did it.

One of the gruesome stories that sticks with me is the eponymous one, Slowly, Slowly in the Wind. Skip, a retired businessman with tons of money, buys a farm and tries to acquire the fishing rights to a piece of the river nearby. Foiled, he ends up murdering his enemy and sticking his corpse up as a scarecrow in his field.

Ripley Under Water

The last of the Ripleys, believe it or not. Highsmith kicks it into high gear with the ludicrous close calls that Ripley endures without being caught. This time, it’s a meddlesome rich American (David Pritchard) who arrives in the small French town to torment Tom by prank calling as Dickie Greenleaf and insinuating all sorts of crimes were committed by Tom (rightfully so). Creepily following Tom and his wife to Morocco, Pritchard endures a beat down from Tom and returns to their small village to begin sweeping the local rivers and dredging the waterways for any sign of the missing businessman who was going to expose Ripley’s art fraud in book 2. Hilariously, he finds the skeleton! And then deposits it on Ripley’s doorstep! But then Ripley removes the ring and throws it back into Pritchard’s pond, causing Pritchard and his wife to slip in and drown while trying to retrieve it. I think Tom calls it his easiest murders yet, which weren’t really murders, just not assisting the drowning figures. All of it is highly unlikely, and he gets off Scot free in the end, per usual.

Now that I’ve overdosed on Ripley, I have a few thoughts. Highsmith has an impeccable touch conveying the banality of evil. Throughout the series, Tom is more bothered by his perception of the screams of live lobsters being boiled to death by his housekeeper than by the many murders he accomplishes. You hang on every detail of domestic life, every mundane mention of a cocktail pour, a cigarette lit, because you’re never quite sure when the hammer blow of an unexpected Ripley-violence will occur. His propensity for confessing murder to his friends is unparalleled, yet does not get him busted. It’s mesmerizing, and some of the best crime/mystery I’ve read in awhile. On to headier and more substantial reads!

The Boy Who Followed Ripley

It’s almost as if Highsmith wants to see how much nonsense we can take. Book 4 of the Ripley series is almost completely unbelievable from beginning to end, but extremely entertaining. I think readers of the series gave up hoping for realism in book 2, happily trading their bullshit radar for an enchanting tale that takes them anywhere but here.

This one is about a young American boy who pushes his rich, disabled father off a cliff and flees to France, enamored with Ripley based on some newspaper accounts he’s read. The boy takes a job as an underpaid gardener and gazes longingly at Ripley’s house until he’s discovered and invited in. Then, kidnapping! For a ransom of $2M USD! And Ripley doesn’t find a way to weasel any of the money, simply rescues his pal after dressing in drag (WTF!) and only killing one of the kidnappers. The ransom money is dutifully sent back to the various Berlin banks it came from, and Ripley’s paternal attitude toward Frank continues all the way until Frank jumps off the very cliff he shoved his dad from.

None of it is remotely believable, but it’s easy on the eyes (and the brain).

Ripley’s Game

The third book in the series is more interesting than the second. Highsmith realizes our devotion to Tom flags a bit, so she devises a way that he can fade a bit into the background. Tom is snubbed by a local Englishman (Jonathan) and decides to get back at him by planting a rumor that his blood disease is worse than expected and sicking his pal Reeves on him with an offer to earn a bunch of cash in return for offing 2 Mafiosa. Jon can’t resist the easy money, as expected, and this otherwise upstanding citizen finds himself mired in criminal activity. The first murder goes off without a hitch, a gunshot in a busy subway terminal, but the second is fraught—Reeves wants Jon to use a garrotte which he shies away from. On the train as he’s contemplating how exactly he’s going to muster the courage to go through with it, lo and behold here comes Ripley to the rescue! I actually laughed at the reappearance of Tom, so eager to help Jon with the killing. Jon’s wife becomes suspicious about all the cash he’s bringing home, and ultimately he gets killed in a shootout while Tom walks away unharmed back to his charmed life.

Ripley Under Ground

Tom Ripley returns, now happily married to a rich French woman, comfortably settled on the outskirts of Paris, yet involved in various schemes to make illegal money. He’s the brains behind an art forgery ring out of London that starts to unravel, and also participates in lifting items off various targets for a fencing organization. The art forgery spawns yet another murder, Tom luring a man who suspects the forgery into his wine cellar where he beans him, then carelessly decides to dump the body in a shallow grave nearby (which ends up being emptied and the body tossed in a local river, but the grave also reused to house Ripley himself when one of his cohorts attempts to kill him). It’s all the usual muddle that you’re amazed he can get away with, you have to completely suspend disbelief that all the cops aren’t locking him up immediately. Bodies start piling up, and yet he escapes… or does he? The book ends as he’s about to get a phone call and we never know, until the next book in the series begins.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

I’ve figured out the way to eradicate Matt Damon’s face from wafting up from the pages of the Ripley series—by re-reading the first book, Highsmith’s character has reverted back to her own description and Damon fades to black. My recent Highsmith kick got sent into hyperdrive and I’ve been reading the entire Ripley series. This one is covered elsewhere, and fans of the movie know the basic plot—Tom Ripley gets sent to Italy to convince Dickie Greenleaf, a man he barely knows, to return home to America. Instead, Ripley insinuates himself into Greenleaf’s life, and eventually kills him, boldly taking his possessions and writing a will that leaves everything to Tom. This is the first of many murders, and Freddy Miles gets knocked off along the way. Marge almost gets killed in Venice but Ripley thinks better of it. It’s completely amazing that no one connects the dots and he gets off scot free, with all of Dickie’s money.

Those Who Walk Away

I could read Patricia Highsmith morning, noon, and night and not get enough of her. I was recently reminded of her after reading about Marijane Meaker, supposedly the inspiration/source of Highsmith’s Price of Salt. Worming my way into the mystery section of the local branch, I found this gem and alternated between slurping it down and having to take a break when the suspense notched too high.

The story revolves around Ray, a widower whose wife killed herself only a year or so into the marriage. Ray’s father in law, Ed Coleman, tries to kill him multiple times and Ray never turns him in, following him to Venice in fact to try and explain further why Peggy slit her wrists in the tub in Mallorca. Ray’s an art dealer from a wealthy family and has seemingly been untroubled by any hardships in life until Ed shoots him (grazes his arm) then in Venice tosses him into the canal after supposedly knocking him unconscious (Ray swims to a buoy and is rescued by Luigi).

After the second attempt on his life, Ray decides to lay low, doesn’t go back to his hotel, holes up in various rooms across the city. He attempts to live a second life as someone else, but keeps running into people who knew him as Ray. Eventually Ed comes at him one last time, smashes his head with a rock, but Ray flings him off and leaves Ed immobile on the sidewalk (although not dead). Ed goes underground and tries to draw suspicion of Ray murdering him, but the jig is up when he sees Ray wandering around trying to find him. Enraged, Ed comes after him with a lead pipe in broad daylight with plenty of witnesses. Ray doesn’t press charges, Ed escapes prison, and happily ever after?

The Price of Salt

I broke my rule of not reading a book once I’d seen the movie yet again with Highsmith’s Price of Salt. And while it wasn’t as exasperating as seeing Matt Damon’s face looming up from the pages of Mr. Ripley, it was still distracting to have lingering ghosts of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara float by. The film fairly closely follows the plot of the book, a shopgirl struck dumb with love at the sight of Carol, her well-meaning but cloddish boyfriend, her artistic friends, the road trip, etc. More in the book about Therese being a set designer and trying to get work on plays than I remember from the movie. The brother of the guy who gets her a gig in NY ends up meeting her out West and trying to convince her to join him in Oakland, but she drives back to NY and has her flim flam meeting with Carol, she asks Therese to move in with her and Therese turns her down, but then a few hours later tracks her to the bar she’d said she was going to, and they exuberantly rejoin forces.

The Tremor of Forgery

A somewhat disappointing book merits a somewhat disappointing and lackluster review. I falsely thought that any words dripped from the pen of Highsmith were bound to be gold, but this was more of a bronze-tinge. Howard Ingham is a semi-successful author who goes to Tunisia on assignment to write a screenplay. When we meet him, he’s impatient to get letters from the chap he’s supposed to work with, John Castlewood, and from his girl back in NYC, Ina. Neither write to him for days, and eventually he finds out that Castlewood had declared his love for Ina then killed himself in Ingham’s apartment. Bizarre and yet you feel somewhat nothing for these facts. Scrapping the movie idea, he begins work on a third? fourth? novel that he names The Tremor of Forgery, working in the morning and evening when it’s not too hot, typing away on his typewriter that he later hurls at an Arab sneaking into his room to steal something and kills(?) him. This whole story is one big question mark, and perhaps that’s Highsmith’s intention.

Ingham befriends a few ex-pats, Francis Adams (aka OWL for ‘our way of life’ which he constantly spews) – an elderly widower who broadcasts secret anti-US radio shows and is paid by Russia; also Jensen, a gay Danish painter.

He picks up and discards people easily, even calling out a quote from Norman Douglas’ 1912 Fountains in the Sand:

He had travelled far in the Old and New Worlds; in him I recognized once again that simple mind of the sailor or wanderer who learns, as he goes along, to talk and think decently; who, instead of gathering fresh encumbrances on Life’s journey, wisely discards even those he set out with.

Ingham finds himself lost in his character, Dennison, feeling adrift in a foreign land:

His face was darker and thinner, different. He was at these moments conscious (as he had been when suffering the gripes at the bungalow) of being alone, without friends, or a job, or any connection with anybody, unable to understand or to speak the main language of the country. Then, being more than half Dennison at theses moments, he experienced something like the unconscious flash of a question: ‘Who am I, anyway? Does one exist, or to what extent does one exist as an individual without friends, family, anybody to whom one can relate, to whom one’s existence is of the least importance?’ It was strangely like a religious experience. It was like becoming nothing and realizing that one was nothing anyway, ever. It was a basic truth.

Ina comes to visit about halfway through the book, Ingham soars on waves of happiness, wants to get married, then retreats, sends her on her way, is ecstatic at receiving a much-forwarded letter from his ex-wife who he plans to try to get back together with in New York.

Little Tales of Misogyny

The best thing about this book is the cover, so I hunted for a good image of it (without being overly stickered by a library). This is actually a pretty terrible thing to say about a book, especially so early-on in my love affair with Highsmith’s writing. But I found little of comfort in the seemingly hastily cobbled together stories that she churned out in this collection. It seems this was first published in German, translated by Richartz, in 1975, which seems odd until you read the stories and think that perhaps she just shat this book out knowing that her words would be chiseled away into Deutsch by someone else. As the Guardian review notes:

The book was first published in 1975 in German, under the title Kleine Geschichte für Weiberfeinde, appearing in English two years later. I should have looked closer at that German title: it means, literally, “little tales for misogynists”. This is not a book to teach the misogynists a lesson: it’s something you might give a misogynist on his birthday.

Which is probably why I’m not terribly enthusiastic about the book. I did recognize one of the stories—The Fully-Licensed Whore, or The Wife—from the Aunt Lute Anthology (Vol 2) which was probably one of the stronger stories.

Edith’s Diary

Stunningly good work by Patricia Highsmith—I finally found a book she’s written that hasn’t been turned into a movie so I could fully enjoy her words without the polluting influence of Hollywood’s interpretation floating before my eyes. Dreamy, creepy, yet jarringly real story of a housewife moved from NYC to the Pennsylvania countryside to raise her (disappointing) son and eventually separate and divorced by her husband in favor of a younger woman. Edith’s diary enters the scene in the first sentence, as appropriate for a main actor, as she is packing up their West Village apartment for the move to Brunswick Corner, PA. She has sporadically jotted things into the heavy leather-bound volume since receiving it as a gift from a man who’d been wooing her while at Bryn Mawr, most recently moods and thoughts like “Isn’t it safer, even wiser, to believe that life has no meaning at all?” In this early chapter we get the foundation for her son, Cliffie,’s character, not doing well in school, day-dreaming in front of the TV, and nearly killing the cat by suffocating it.

Also early on the family is saddled with caring for an ailing elderly uncle of her husband’s, uncle George, who ends up spending 12 or 13 years at their home before being helped into a permanent sleep by Cliffie and medicine. Edith cares for George in her house for YEARS after Brett abandons her, not helping her get him into a nursing home, and later sniffing around to see if there was foul play in the death. Years and years of bedpans and rubber sheets and preparing trays of food and tea to take up to him. Compare and contrast to Edith’s aunt Melanie, the same age or older than George, spry and fit and cheerful and gallivanting about, excitedly visiting Edith whenever she gets a chance. Melanie dies of a stroke a few weeks before Cliffie sends George packing.

Edith writes articles and editorials for the local paper she helped create, but begins to go off the rails and make the community uncomfortable, eventually losing her part-time job in a gift shop. As her life spirals out of control, she finds refuge in her diary, spinning up a completely fabricated life of success for her son whom she marries off with children and an important job in the Middle East. The line begins to blur between reality and her dream life, she prepares a champagne lunch one spring day and pretends Cliffie and his wife are there, when in reality it’s just fat, lazy, boozy Cliffie who still lives at home with her and sometimes works at a local bar or delivering groceries. At age 24 he falls in love (unrequited) for the first time, and spends years trying to forget her.

Eventually the psychiatrists are sent in, storming the fortress, always asking to see her workroom where she’s begun sculpting. She created busts of her son and aunt… along with busts of the two children she dreamed up for her son. She’s carrying the heavy bust of her son downstairs to show one of the doctors when she trips, falls, and dies. Cliffie lives on, rescues her diary and swears never to read it.

Books sometimes establish credibility by flashing titles of other books as credentials, and Highsmith invokes Orwell’s 1984 and Homage to Catalonia early on to gain our trust.