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.

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Treading the labyrinth

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)
Reconstruction of part of the Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)

Patricia Highsmith:
The Two Faces of January.
Sphere 2014 (1964)

With the action mostly set in Athens, Crete and Marseille — the French port an ancient Greek colony — it’s hardly surprising that Highsmith’s crime novel has the feel of a classical legend. From the title (The Two Faces of January is a nod to the Roman two-headed god Janus whose month opened the year) to a crucial scene in Knossos (reputedly the inspiration for the Cretan labyrinth) we can’t help but be aware that this very 20th-century tragedy has its affinities, its roots even, in the ancient world; for all its modern trappings the story turns on eternal human failings like hubris, that pride that can bring down both the guilty and the innocent.

This novel is a play with just three leading characters and a small cast of bit players. Chester MacFarlane is an American conman hiding out in Europe with his young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is an intelligent young American avoiding confrontation with his critical father before feeling guilty for having not attended his funeral. Chester survives under numerous aliases but has little facility with modern foreign languages like Greek; Rydal is fluent in French, Italian and Greek and so is in a position to help Chester and Colette when a Greek detective is inadvertently killed. Why does Rydal help the couple? Is it just because Chester reminds him of his father and Colette of his first love?

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