The hunter and the hunted

Libreria Marciana, Venice CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Commons

Those Who Walk Away
by Patricia Highsmith,
introduction by Joan Schenkar.
Virago Modern Classics, 2014 (1967).

His room was simple and clean and had a view through its tall windows of Giudecca across the water and, directly below, of the small canal that went along one side of the pensione.

Chapter 2

In the late 1990s we stayed a night in Venice at the Pensione Seguso, possibly where Patricia Highsmith may have stayed late in 1966 while researching this novel. So it was with the shock of recognition that the view the fictional Ray Garrett has from his room in the very same pensione is almost precisely that which we had some thirty years later.

And why is Ray staying here? He is trying to meet up with his father-in-law, Ed Coleman, to explain how he feels about the suicide in Mallorca of his wife Peggy, Ed’s daughter, for which the older man blames Ray with an intense resentment that borders on and then tips over into psychopathy.

The problem is that Ed has already made an attempt on Ray’s life when they’d met in Rome: what will Ray’s reception be like in Venice when he turns up alive and physically unharmed?

Palazzo del Cammello, Venice (1882) by Robert Ru

Ray is the protagonist we mostly follow, an indecisive type who tends to watch life go by, but who wants to get on well with others, avoiding conflict. He sees himself as “afflicted with an inferiority complex, passably attractive, fairly rich, though without any great talent.” Unfortunately he’s up against an antagonist who’s an impulsive man with a violent temper, who uses people, who idolised his daughter, who has always hated Ray but now does so with a passion. In Venice and elsewhere in the Lagoon the pair take it in turns to be the hunter or the hunted, one wanting simply to talk, the other to main and murder.

Highsmith wrote this – one of a trio of thrillers (as we’re told by Joan Schenkar in her informative introduction) – while living in Suffolk, England, but her writing is so immediate you feel you’re following Ray and Ed alternately every step of the way, whether in Venice’s labyrinth, in Giudecca, on the Lido or in Chioggia. We meet Ed’s current girlfriend Inez, her friend Antonio and other American visitors staying at the grand hotels; we observe Ray assisted by locals who help get him out of tight spots and with whom he establishes mutual respect; we are present at interviews with the local police and an American detective.

But always there’s that sense of menace, of potential danger round every corner, that Highsmith does so well, even as she states facts with dispassionate clarity and clinically probes the thoughts of her characters. I can sense that some readers may baulk at Ray’s seemingly insipid nature, his passivity, his desire to be liked by not offending anyone, but I have to say I largely empathised with him; he, perhaps like Highsmith herself, wears a mask-like persona because he really isn’t sure who or what the real Ray Garrett is, unlike Ed who is utterly selfish in his ruthlessness and hates to disguise it.

I have no idea if this is (as the Slovenian critic Slavoj Žižek has written) Highsmith’s masterpiece, but I do know this: she expertly manages to add Venice itself to her cast of characters, in such a way that I for one long to go back to La Serenissima, to walk its maze of calli, admire its vistas away from the tourist hubs, and rejoice in its sensual delights. And maybe look out for the ghosts of Ed and Ray.

© C A Lovegrove

26 thoughts on “The hunter and the hunted

  1. jjlothin

    I have regular Highsmith bouts but I’m not at all sure I’ve read this one – clearly I must!

    I recently re-read ‘Talented Mr Ripley’, having just re-watched the Anthony Minghella adaptation, which is so different from the book, but equally brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A great film, which I’ve watched twice over the years. I’ve only read the first Ripley novel, but there again Highsmith is brilliant at getting the reader to partly identify with and cheer on someone whose morals are really questionable. In Those Who Walk Away the cat and mouse game made me like but be frustrated with one character while disliking but being fascinated by the other. I think you’d enjoy this title!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        The other Ripley novels are definitely worth a read – well, certainly Ripley Under Ground (the second) and Ripley’s Game (third) at least …

        And there’ve been two films of the latter, with very different Ripleys: John Malkovich (Ripley’s Game), and way back in the 70s, Dennis Hopper (The American Friend) …

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Goodness, I’d promised myself I’d read Highsmith for her centenary last year but it’s over half way through 2022, and I still haven’t gotten down to it. That said, this does sound an exciting read, and I like the idea of how Venice is in itself a character in the book. Must look this up when I get the chance.

    Also what a coincidence that you brought up Zizek, another author I’ve been meaning to get to (I’ve read a couple of short pieces when at university, but that was it), and whom I was reminded of by the Book of Form and Emptiness as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Žižek was quoted on the back cover blurb so I went in search of his original commentary, but I admit I’ve not read any of his stuff. He’s right to praise her, though, she’s a great author and her matter-of-fact narration is clinical and devoid of pretty much any flowery language, all the better to beguile the reader!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I still haven’t read anything by Highsmith, although that should change soon as I have her Strangers on a Train on my Classics Club list. This one sounds very appealing, particularly because of the Venice setting!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. You really must, Silvia! I have another novel by Highsmith, The Tremor of Forgery, waiting on my shelves – this one set in Tunisia (which Emily has visited but not me) – and I hope to get to that before too long.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve not yet read Strangers on a Train but I would expect her trademark approach of getting the reader into the heads of the protagonists. Would love to know what you thought of it once you get to it!

      And yes, Venice, what more can one, need one, say? 🙂

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    1. I do envy you, Jeanne, what a treat to get your lifetime wish! If you know the Dorsoduro district and Giudecca island, as well as the area around San Marco you’ll love vicariously wandering the calle in the pages of this novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My husband has read all the Ripley novels but hasn’t heard of this one. The Venice setting does sound appealing – it’s a city we’ve talked about visiting for many years but all the reports about how crowded it is have taken the edge off our enthusiasm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Virago Modern Classics seem to have started republishing many Highsmith novels half a dozen years or so ago so your husband might relish looking at their listings: https://store.virago.co.uk/collections/author-patricia-highsmith-pid-8778

      As for Venice, it’s planning to introduce a €10 extra tax for day visitors to the city next year to help counter the insane overcrowding, but away from the honeypot sites it’s much less hectic (as we found, although that was more than twenty years ago).

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      1. jjlothin

        Just happened to notice ‘Tremor of Forgery’ (e-book thereof) is/was 99p on Amazon, so have snapped it up all the more to enjoy your review when it comes out, Chris!

        Liked by 1 person

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