Bitter aftertaste

Patricia Highsmith: Sour Tales for Sweethearts
Virago 2015 (1975)

Here are four domestic vignettes, all with a bitter ending, by the mistress of the twisted tale. ‘The Hand’ tells us that asking a father for his daughter’s hand may not bring the result the young man making the request expected; nor is the ending what we the readers may have expected. ‘The Invalid, or, The Bed-Ridden’ is a morality tale for those who would feign illness or disability, while in ‘The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife’ the titular character proves she can have her cake and eat it. Finally, ‘The Female Novelist’ features a writer with a heap of rejection slips and a wayward husband; where is she going to get her inspiration from?

Delicious little tales, these, with that unpleasant aftertaste that characterises Highsmith. Three of the pieces involve death, two the result of murder, the fourth might even hint at thoughts of violence. She uses a sparse narrative style, concentrating on description with few adjectives (except when necessary) and fewer adverbs. Occasionally a protagonist’s thoughts are revealed, but they are rarely profound.

The archaic titles of a couple of the tales only helps to distance the writer and the reader from the personnel. Highsmith is like a behavioural scientist, observing rats as they go about in their constrained environments and tweaking the controls to get them to do something out of the ordinary. It’s not a pretty sight, but for the reader it’s morbidly fascinating.

A word about this edition. This is a tiny selection from Highsmith’s 1975 collection Little Tales of Misogyny, which appeared in a UK edition in 1977. By this time the original will have been ‘translated’ for a British audience (as evidenced by expressing weight in stones as opposed to pounds) and an unsuspecting English reader would have little inkling these could be set almost anywhere in the US or Europe.

Now, the title. This is not actually Highsmith’s choice but one selected by the editorial director of Virago Books for presenting these four short stories. A little online sleuthing reveals that it’s actually based on a dedication she herself penned in late 1977: “sour reading — for sweet spirits.” In Nick Jones’ Existential Ennui blog he reveals that Virago discovered this dedication noted in a post he’d published about his copy of the collection: “When it came to reissuing Little Tales of Misogyny at the start of this year [2015], to accompany it Virago concocted Sour Tales for Sweethearts, a showcase-cum-promotional item intended to sit beside bookshop tills, featuring four stories from Little Tales of Misogyny,” Jones wrote in his second post.

This then is a promo publication, the text of the tales limited to just 22 pages of largish type. As a taster of the author’s subject matter and style it’s perfect, its bleak outlook (shading to black humour) encapsulating the approach found in the Ripley books for example, or in novels like The Two Faces of January (1964). It’s an unsettling view of the human race she presents.


For the 2018 Ultimate Reading Guide this counts as a book you can finish in a day (and so it proved)

14 thoughts on “Bitter aftertaste

  1. Highsmith is another author that I’ve been meaning to read forever but haven’t gotten to yet–This sounds an interesting story collection. Twists certainly make for good reading, fun or otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the warning. I like my tales tart, but ultimately sweet. Also, sparse adjectives and minimal adverbs puts me off completely. I maintain that it is impossible to get a full mental picture of a scene without them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t say there weren’t any, just that she was sparing with them. Adjectives and adverbs can, and are meant to, add colour and texture and tone to a description, all qualities that make a situation vivid; but equally they can overload it with details that distract from the main narrative. I maintain it’s possible to keep the reader’s interest without overloading the text with description.

      And if you followed that without difficulty I’ll have you know I avoided adverbs and adjectives as much as possible. I did include one or two though…

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        1. Ha! Touché. I’m touched that you’re still communicating with me as, having just read through my reply, I realise it reads as rather brusque, even petulant. Sorry. That’s the problem with having access to emoticons, emoji symbols and the like, plus a frequent recourse to exclamation marks — without them it’s hard to tell if one is being tongue in cheek or just plain rude!!! 😁

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I can assure you that your reply didn’t come across to me in the slightest degree as brusque or petulant, and if my reply came across as if I thought it was I am sorry. (This could get ridiculous if we carry it on!)

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I have commented earlier too, but this time around I noticed your observation on the lens she uses to view her characters–that of a behavioural scientist–that was something that stood out in all the articles I read to put together my post, of how her concern is largely with psychology and the whydunit than the who and how.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do like whydunits more than whodunits, they seem more what a novel should be about than the crime fiction put together like a cryptic cossword puzzle. I have to admit though that I also quite like the occasional well put together cryptic crossword! They can be quite satisfying intellectually. But I mostly read novels to tell me something about the human condition. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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