Friday, 10 April 2015

Forgotten Book - A Suspension of Mercy

Patricia Highsmith's A Suspension of Mercy was first published in 1965, at a time when she was, arguably, reaching the end of her peak period as a highly original crime novelist specialising in tense stand-alones, in which it's almost impossible to predict the fate that awaits the protagonist. Later, much of her innovative work came in her short stories. But A Suspension of Mercy is a strong book, which I first enjoyed thirty years ago, and relished just as much on a second reading.

It's unusual, for Highsmith, on two counts. First, it's set in Britain - and I must say that she writes well about British life, just as she wrote well about the people and communities in a range of European countries. This novel is one that she wrote while living in  Suffolk, and the setting has an authentic flavour. Second, her protagonist is a crime writer. Sydney Bartleby is a novelist who fancies himself as a TV screenwriter, working in collaboration with a friend. Some of the storylines for his scripts are hugely entertaining; I am sure Highsmith had a lot of fun coming up with the ideas.

Sydney is married to a British woman. Alicia is young and attractive, but their relationship is heading for a crisis. Sydney fantasises about killing Alicia, and starts to behave erratically. His unwisdom becomes painfully apparent when Alicia leaves home without a trace. Has he killed her? The locals start to gossip, and the police take an interest...

This is a classically suspenseful Highsmithian situation. Sydney, like so many other Highsmith protagonists, behaves self-destructively, but his folly is less irritating than that of one or two of her other characters (Walter in The Blunderer springs to mind) because of the stylish, and ironic writing. Nor is there the sense, as there is in some books, that the situation is being dragged out beyond its natural span. The last phrase in the book is "everything was a matter of attitude", and this theme is cleverly conveyed by the storyline. A Suspension of Mercy is, I think, an under-rated Highsmith, and I really enjoyed it all over again.

3 comments:

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Martin, I'm looking forward to reading my first Patricia Highsmith novel. Any recommendations?

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Prashant. The famous ones, The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, deserve their high reputations. Deep Water is very good. And so are this one, and The Two Faces of January.

Scott Herbertson said...

Deep Water is my favourite Highsmith. As well as the ones that Martin mentions I would add the Glass Cell