Going native

© C A Lovegrove

The Tremor of Forgery
by Patricia Highsmith.
Introduction by Denise Mina.
Virago Press, 2015 (1969)

‘There were moments here in Hammamet, days and weeks, in fact, when I hadn’t any letters from you or from anybody, and I felt strange even to myself, as if I didn’t know myself. And part of it, perhaps – I know from a moral point of view – was that the Arabs all around me had different standards, different ethics. And they were in the majority, you see. This world is theirs, not mine.’

Chapter 20

The enigmatic title, supposedly the title of a novel the protagonist is writing, in fact indicates a key thread in this subtle tale of suspense. Handwriting experts can apparently identify telltale hesitation in a faked signature; and when author Howard Ingham dissembles or denies involvement in the disappearance of an individual, his behaviour also betrays the tremor of forgery.

Set in the summer of 1967 at the time of the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, The Tremor of Forgery speaks of a period of waiting, increasing heat and frustration. And yet living without monetary worries in a Tunisian beach resort could, perhaps should, on paper be an ideal existence.

Patricia Highsmith’s novel is carefully wrought: nothing much appears to happen yet we have suspense, murder and mystery – all understated, it’s true, yet though narrated in a matter-of-fact way it still draws the reader in and sustains their interest right to the last page.

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Ingham, a novelist from New York, is in Hammamet, a resort on the east coast of Tunisia, waiting for a filmmaker to arrive so that they can finish a script together. But for weeks there’s no news from John Castlewood, nor any missives from Ingham’s girlfriend Ina Pallant. He whiles away the time either swimming, eating out, sightseeing, or  writing a story about a man who embezzles from his firm only to give it, Robin Hood fashion, to those he thinks deserve the money. Finally he hears why John Castlewood hasn’t replied to letters or, indeed, turned up.

Meanwhile, he befriends, or is befriended by, a Danish artist called Anders Jensen and a strangely moralistic American called Francis J Adams (he promotes ‘Our Way of Life’ and consequently is known as OWL); Ingham is on friendly terms with a member of the hotel staff called Mokta, and feels antagonistic towards Abdullah who he suspects of thievery. And as the weeks draw on he wonders if his moral point of view was adapting to the “different standards, different ethics” of the Tunisians he comes into contact with. Whether he is, in effect, “going native.”

I was strongly reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos, in which a trio of individuals find themselves in a strange room, attended by a valet, which they discover is Hell. Here instead is Ingham, in a world very different from his daily life in New York City; on the one hand is Jensen who tells him to forget about an act he feels both justified by and guilty about, and on the other is OWL who is like the angel on his other shoulder, his conscience perhaps. And then, out of the blue, Ina announces she is coming to visit. Will she be the cat to set among the pigeons?

I found The Tremor of Forgery a fascinating and intriguing psychological thriller. As Denise Mina says in her insightful introduction, the novel is to a large extent about truth-telling, and I agree – Ingham has to confront not just lying to others but also to himself. But there is an element of metafiction and possibly autobiofiction in these pages. I don’t know if Highsmith actually spent time in the country to research it – could she really have picked up all she needed from a Guide Bleu, Ingham’s go-to bible for Tunisia? – but the notion of an American writer writing about a writer working abroad when she herself had relocated to Europe is a striking one. And the fact that a typewriter has a starring role shows humour of a really dark kind.

Grahame Greene declared this Highsmith’s finest novel. I haven’t read enough of her work to agree or disagree, but I was sufficiently impressed to think it rather good.

#RIPxvii: books on mystery, suspense, thriller, horror, dark fantasy, supernatural, and Gothic

14 thoughts on “Going native

  1. This sounds fascinating, Chris. I know the titles of lots of Highsmith’s novels, but haven’t got round to reading any. I think because I’m not sure where to start. I think I might look for a copy of this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Forget about Highsmith being a thriller writer, Jan, or about focusing on suspense and so on; if one can ignore her reputation for genre writing this comes over as masterly literary fiction pure and simple more than any pigeonholing as a crime drama.

      In fact it’s best to junk the thrill aspect of the label ‘psychological thriller’ and focus on what’s going on the protagonist’s head and the minds of those he comes into contact with: I think you’d appreciate this for that reason alone!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll have to look for this one. I love your description of the character living without monetary worries in a Tunisian beach resort which “could, perhaps should, on paper be an ideal existence” but evidently it is not. That’s how I feel about hands of card games sometimes–if I don’t win the hand the way I planned, sometimes I feel angry about it, even if I still win. My friends sometimes laugh at me for this. Might be a sign of a controlling nature?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It reminded me of the only one of Agatha Christie’s novels I’ve read which she published as by Mary Westmacott – a plunge into a character’s psyche, but one where we’re not entirely convinced they’ve entirely changed their outlook on life. If it’s not too gushy a word I loved both portraits.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I still haven’t read any Patricia Highsmith, but I do have Strangers on a Train on my Classics Club list and am hoping to get to it soon. The setting of this one appeals as I went on holiday to Hammamet years ago but have never read any fiction set there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you went to Hammamet then there’s every chance you might recognise a few places mentioned. When I read Those Who Walk Away she actually mentioned a small pensione in Venice we’d stayed in. Not read Strangers on a Train but hopefully I will at some stage!


  4. This sounds fascinating. I’ve only read Strangers on a Train, and because I love the film so much found I was constantly making comparisons which didn’t really work to the book’s advantage. However I did feel that the psychological aspects were considerably better than the thriller aspects, as you’ve mentioned in one of your replies to another comment. The setting and political background to this really appeals – I think I may have to make this my next Highsmith!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank goodness so many Highsmith novels are published by Virago (nineteen the last time I checked) as we have a range from which to pick. This one is great, a slow burn but quite immersive – and straddling June to August in the hot Tunisian summer a nice contrast as we slide deeper into autumn!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I still haven’t read anything by Highsmith yet but might add this one to my ‘potentials’ list. It sounds a little like an Agatha Christie, and I usually enjoy books that feature a story within a story.
    The other book I think sounds really interesting is Strangers on a Train, another one I’d like to read at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure Christie would’ve focused so much on the moral ambiguities here as Highsmith does, but I do know what you mean. Weirdly, though I’ve read a handful of Highsmith titles now I’ve not yet got to Strangers on a Train, which got many mentions here (but not The Talented Mr Ripley which I thought likely to feature).

      Liked by 1 person

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